You think cancer is bad… it’s the SIDE EFFECTS we really need to talk about


CANCER… it’s a word we all dread, and rightly so.

It’s wrecks lives, tears families apart and if you’re “lucky” enough to live with it, it’s agonising.

Cancer is something we all fear and rightly so. But we need to start talking about the side effects
Kevin Dunnett – The Sun

But, it’s not the only thing you have to face when you get diagnosed.

My life changed forever in December 2016, when doctors told me they’d found a tumour in my bowel.

While I had no idea at the time just how much life would change, I knew it would never be the same.

Cancer isn’t the only problem

What I didn’t know was that cancer wasn’t my only problem.

When you get diagnosed, it’s not just the disease you have to contend with – it’s the side effects too.

The side effects of having cancer, and treating it.

I had no clue, and that’s because they are rarely talked about. They are yet another cancer taboo that we as a society pussy foot around, for fear of embarrassment.

So, when they started to happen to me, I freaked out. I thought it was just me, that I was the only one.

From sickness to a shorter vagina

I knew some of the side effects I should expect, sickness and sheer exhaustion from chemo for example
@bowelbabe / Instagram

They range from the better known.. sickness and sheer exhaustion when you’re on chemo, to horrifying skin flare ups when you’re on the drugs I’m now taking.

But since my treatment began my vagina is shorter after surgery to remove part of my bowel.

One of my boobs is now more tender too, because the nerves were affected after my lung ops.

My pelvic floor, which was rubbish before, is shot to bits after chemo, and means I end up peeing, pooing, sneezing and vomiting all at once. Nice, huh?!

I’m count myself relatively lucky, some cancer patients lose their boobs, have to live with stoma bags and face impotence and hair loss.

Then there are all the new scars you’re left with, mine literally criss-cross my body, where once I was embarrassed, now I’m proud – they’re keeping me alive.

When I heard the words “bowel cancer” in the same sentence as “I’m afraid you’ve got it”, I never expected any of this.

I’m not shy about my side effects

I didn’t realise my current drugs would cause horrible skin flare ups and had no clue my surgery would leave me with a shorter vagina
Deborah James

Thankfully, I’m not shy and so I have been able to speak to my wonderful doctors about my side effects.

Every two weeks I see my oncologist for a check up, purely to discuss my side effects.

He’s also my first port of call when it comes to managing my steroids, spiking a fever or any general concerns I might have.

He knows my treatment isn’t straightforward, and he knows I’m anything but straightforward.

He knows I suffer from anxiety, a fear of hospital waiting rooms, and that I’d much rather be anywhere else in the world.

We share a love of wine, the British season and the importance of having something in life to live for.

I can open up thanks to my doctor

My scars criss-cross my body and while I was once embarrassed, now I am proud – they are keeping me alive
Deborah James

Thanks to him being a constant in my cancer journey, we have been able to manage my side effects pretty well.

It’s been so important to me, getting me through this unknown.

And it means my quality of life is pretty good, despite my daily treatment.

But all this has only been possible because I have felt comfortable enough to discuss anything and everything.

Yes, that includes my overdue contraceptive coil that needs replacing, my emotional headspace, and my weakening pelvic floor.

It also includes the anal fissures that really bloody hurt, the steroid rage and my mad hormones that made me cry at Toy Story.

As with most difficult things in life, for me this has been about communication.

Other cancer pals struggle to open up

I’m not shy, and I can talk to my doctor about all my embarrassing side effects, but I have friends who struggle and that’s why talking openly is important, we can all help each other
Deborah James

I’m lucky, I don’t care talking about these things.

But I know friends of mine, cancer pals, who don’t feel able to open up.

They can’t just blurt out that their sex life is sh*t, their vagina is sore and they have achey boobs.

New research recently published by the charity Macmillan warns people with cancer face their health getting worse, because of “taboo” side effects.

Since my treatment began my vagina is shorter, one of my boobs is now more tender and my pelvic floor is shot to bits

Sex and relationships topped the poll of subjects cancer patients avoid talking about, and one expert warned “not talking makes things worse”.

I get it, I only have a short amount of time each week with my doctors.

I make a list, normally topped with skin flare up, or energy levels and sickness.

Breaking taboos

When it comes to those “taboo” subjects, I don’t shy away.

And, as hard as it can be, I would urge other cancer patients to try and open up.

You might think your coil concerns or worrying about impotence is a small issue in the grand scheme of cancer.

I often feel like I shouldn’t complain about these things, because they seem trivial.

I don’t want to sound like I am whingeing about my cancer treatment.

But why shouldn’t we, it’s bloody horrible.

As more and more of us live with cancer and defy this disease, so these problems are only going to become more widespread.

So, like checking your poo every month for signs of bowel cancer, opening up and being really honest about side effects of treatment can only serve to help other patients.

“How’s your sex life?” maybe isn’t high on the list of questions during your check ups.

But, maybe it needs to be?


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