Today I will tell my story of cancer.
In my last blog, I focused on perfectionism and the stress that it causes. I spoke frankly about my own experience with anxiety and overthinking.
Although this week is dedicated to mental health, I believe poor mental health can impact on physical wellbeing. I believe my self induced stress as described yesterday is what led to a large vascular tumour.
To cut a long story short, it was September 11th 2008 and the nurse told me "there appears to be a large mass in abdominal area. This could be your ovary - you will need a full hysterectomy"
Three blood transfusions later, I am sure it was very clear to the surgeon that it was not my ovary. He was right about it being a large mass - it was a 11 inches by 13 inches tumour ('the size of a basketball' he said).
Fortunately, they managed to remove most of the large tumour which had attached itself to my bowel and behind my abdominal muscles.
I was told I would need further surgery as the cancer was still attached to my bowel and it would have been too dangerous to attempt to remove it.
Doctors and surgeons couldn't agree on a diagnosis. Among the suggestions was hemangiopericytoma (a rare vascular tumour). I researched medical journals and I could only find an article about an 82 year old lady who had the same 'diagnosis'.
In search of answers, I flew to New York, to Memorial Sloan Kettering, one of the world's largest cancer hospital.
There I was told that I would need another surgery to remove part of the bowel. This would mean a colostomy bag. What?!? Then came the next bombshell- the hospital couldn't treat me nor could my surgery be completed because my insurance company said my cancer was a 'pre-existing condition.' I was told I would need to pay the $55,000 medical bill myself and was no longer entitled to treatment unless I paid this. My blood pressure still rises recalling this! At the time, whilst also studying for my Masters, I was working for the University as an advisor for international students about health insurance. Thankfully, my boss went absolutely berserk and fought the insurance company on my behalf to reduce my bill.
Shortly later, I received a phone call from the specialist at Sloan Kettering who told me I needed to go to Scotland immediately to have another surgery as the scan showed large quantities of fluid in my abdominal area. I booked my flights immediately to go home. I soon received another phone call "apologies, we were looking at the scan straight after your surgery, it is not as urgent as we thought - it would be best to go anyway!"
I returned to Scotland during Spring Break to see a consultant and then flew back to USA to sit my exams for my Masters. The day after my exams I flew back to Scotland for my second surgery. They removed part of my bowel to remove the remaining cancer. This was 8 years ago and I am still all clear. Thank you NHS!
What causes this type of cancer? One in which the tumour feeds on the blood vessels allowing it to grow quickly? The specialists did not know - perhaps a fall?
I believe the cause was psychological distress. Although I presented as outgoing and happy, I was often crippled with an internal turmoil of anxiety and stress. After I got my degree, I spent a year working in the USA as a Mental Health Counselor and running different soccer programs and coaching different teams. I was out of the house from 530am until 10pm. I dedicated every waking minute to helping people that I quickly forgot how to help myself. I was stressed, tired and didn't feel like myself but I continued to push myself everyday without rest.
When I got cancer, I found myself again. I started to remember what and who were important. I spent the summer travelling Europe with friends and it was during this time I realised that life in the USA wasn't for me anymore. I needed more balance in my life. I had to learn to relax and not let stress get the better of me.
I am not saying that I don't have the tendency to slip into being a "workaholic" but I now set aside time every day for my yoga practice and take time at the weekend to switch off and spend time with the people who are important to me.
I fortunately recovered quickly from both of my surgeries and I believe that this was due to being physically fit and having amazing and supportive people around me. I believe if you find a yoga community like at Yogabomb, you can gain both of these - fitness and being surrounded by great yogi's. Teachers inject positivity into the studio and you leave feeling stress-free and liberated. Yogabomb is a place which helps me both physically and mentally. Namaste 🙏🏽
Tracy Donachie, MSc in Performance Psychology.