Living with breast cancer

Helen Andrews, like many people, thought hospices were places where you go to die. Here, she tells Yoursaintmichaels how this view changed after she was referred to Saint Michael’s following her diagnosis with a terminal illness.

 The cancer has spread to your bones.

That was not the news that Helen Andrews, from Darley, expected to hear. She had already faced breast cancer and its treatment head on and thought she had beaten it. But, just two years after treatment Helen received the news that it had returned in her head, pelvis and spine. She said: “I had managed to return to work and was really starting to get back to a new normal.

“Surely I was cured of cancer? How on earth had this happened? It was as if someone switched off all the lights.

“The following months were horrendous. I couldn’t sleep as I was terrified about what was happening to me and much of my waking hours were spent trying to put on a face to help those around me cope with the news.”

The 47-year-old was physically and mentally exhausted and it was at this time that clinicians supporting her suggested that hospice care could help. 

Helen said: “The only reason I agreed was because I didn't have the mental energy not to.

“That is for people really close to death, isn’t it? And I wasn’t that ill, was I?”

At the end of her first visit to Saint Michael’s Helen left feeling unsure that the team could help her. But by her second visit perceptions started to change.

“I started to find solace. It was a haven where I felt safe and supported and where I started to be able to regain some balance.”

Professionals were on hand to help Helen with the symptoms of her illness, such as any pain she was feeling. They were also able to assist her with practical issues, such as applying for a disabled parking badge or finding new ways to carry out daily activities she might be finding physically difficult.

The Hospice also offered a sanctuary from a world that the former dietician believes is not geared up for people who have a terminal illness.

Helen said: “No one connected with Saint Michael’s is uncomfortable with the fact that I am dying.

“Death is honestly just a fact of life and they offer a space that allows you to feel that it is normal to be dying, something you don’t feel anywhere else in your life.”

Within this space Helen was able to talk about her feelings, such as her fears about dying and leaving her family and how angry she was to be ill. She was also able to make plans for the future, such as deciding where she wanted to die or what sort of funeral she wanted.

Helen said: “Talking about these things gave me some control in an uncontrollable situation, some normality in an abnormal existence.  

“I can’t stop what is happening to me but to get things straight in my head and make some decisions gives me some control back.”

It is now nearly three years since these initial visits to Saint Michael’s and Helen has recently returned to use the charity’s services for a second time.

She said: “Looking back, coming to Saint Michael’s even though I had just been diagnosed was perhaps the best decision I made.

“I know people don’t think of accessing hospice care at this stage but I would really recommend considering this option.

“What the Hospice team did was provide me with the support I needed at that time to continue and live with the fact that I am dying.

“And now I am back again as I carry on with this journey and face the next stage of my disease.”

Follow Helen’s story at www.saintmichaelshospice.org/blog as she blogs about her experiences of living with a terminal illness and the issues that matter to her.  

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