Monday, 19 December 2016

The ‘I did it for The Christie’ sporting reception was very poignant with so many heart warming stories - Natalie Dawes

Natalie Dawes, Christie patient and fundraiser

Natalie Dawes
Earlier this month, I was very honoured to be asked to speak to a group of around 70 fundraisers at an ‘I did it for The Christie’ reception for people who had taken part in sporting events during 2016 to support The Christie charity. 

The people in the room, together with thousands of others who took part in sporting events this year, had between them raised nearly £2m for this wonderful charity.

It was a very poignant and emotional night, with so many wonderful heart-warming stories of people doing amazing things to support cancer patients at The Christie, many of them patients themselves or former patients! It was a truly inspiring evening and left me more determined than ever to support this special cause.

I particularly enjoyed watching a special video showing many of these amazing fundraisers explaining why they “did it for the Christie”. 

It also meant so much to me to be asked to speak to at this event.

I was there because back in October 2016, I walked the Night of Neon for The Christie, almost exactly a year to the day since I had discovered a small breast lump.

I thought I'd better get it checked out, but having had a couple of breast cysts in the past, I was in complete shock as it dawned on me this lump might be much more serious.

My life changed forever on 15 December 2015 when I was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer at the age of 36. I'm still not really able to put into words how it felt to be given the news. There was no family history of breast cancer so it came completely out of the blue for us. 

Needless to say, Christmas was one to forget. My carefully laid plans for 2016 went out of the window. This was the year my husband and I were hoping to start our longed for family and my career as a solicitor was going from strength to strength. Now I had to face the biggest challenge yet.

Everything moved very quickly and thankfully I didn't really have time to stop and dwell on what had happened. I had to get going with treatment straight away. I elected for neo adjuvant treatment. The chemotherapy was done before surgery, so they could see if the tumour responded. The Christie was quick to get the chemotherapy underway. Despite only living a mile away from the Withington hospital, I walked into it for the very first time in my life during the first week of January. Happy new year.....

The chemo scheduler was brilliant. He arranged treatment on Fridays to fit in with my husband's work, so my husband could always come with me. My chemo ran until May 2016. These were the hardest six months of my life. Absolutely nothing can prepare you for the physical and mental challenge. Of course as I went through each treatment I became weaker and weaker, but I also knew after each session that I was one step closer to finishing it. I got a lot of satisfaction from ticking off each week on my blue appointment card. 

For me, the loss of hair was a big deal. I had an incredibly thick long mane of blonde hair before chemo, it had been this way since I was a child and it was my identity. Vanity got in the way and I decided, with the very patient help of the chemo nurses to give the cold cap treatment a go. The additional hours on the chemo ward and the agony of a freezing cold head was definitely worth it to save about 50% of my hair. It worked so well I was able to avoid wearing a wig by mastering the art of a sweep over.  It wasn't until my missing hair grew back though that I truly accepted I was not a natural blonde.

I became increasingly anxious during chemo as my veins suffered greatly and I found the whole experience of even stepping foot in The Christie extremely difficult. I was given a lot of support by an oncologist psychology nurse called Jo. One of the main things that got me through each chemo session was the hypnocalm sessions provided by the amazing complementary therapist Salma. She would visit me on the chemo ward, calm me down, massage my feet and take me on a journey to my safe place away from the stresses of treatment. I rang the end of treatment bell as hard as I possibly could after completing my last session. It was an emotional day.

Whilst I didn't have much love for chemotherapy at the time, I look back at it now and am so thankful for those drugs. They worked their magic and to my relief the tumour greatly reduced. I had a lumpectomy and lymph node biopsy in June 2016 under the care of Wythenshawe Hospital. The surgery went well and I was so happy to be told there was no evidence that the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes or surrounding blood tissue.

I was back at The Christie in July to start my 20 sessions of radiotherapy and I finally completed the treatment on 11th August 2016 when I found another bell to ring! 

I was in a much better place by then mentally, and I found coming in for radiotherapy to be very comforting, in fact I felt a bit lost when it finished, as if I was on my own then. 

It was during those daily trips to radiotherapy that I would walk past the big neon pink banner raising awareness of the Night of Neon walk. When I saw the date was the end of October I thought to myself, I'm going to make sure I am fit enough to do that walk. It fell around the one year anniversary of finding the lump so it was a significant date for me. 

Signing up for the Night of Neon pushed my rehabilitation forward and gave me something positive to focus on. It definitely helped my psychological recovery as I spent time "in training" walking around Didsbury with my dog Larry. 

I have to say that when I initially started treatment I was completely taken aback and saddened by how many patients there were waiting for treatment at the Oak Road Treatment Centre. But as time went by I started to think about it in a more positive way, realising that it was so busy because of the amazing work the researchers are doing to keep people alive, not only to treat but also to cure. That's why I felt it was so important to give something back to The Christie and was one of my main reasons for fundraising.

I also wanted do something to thank and repay all The Christie staff who treated me along the way. From the hard working chemo nurses to the calming complementary therapists, psychologists, consultants, wonderful radiographers and thoughtful schedulers, they all made a difference to me.

Thanks to my lovely family and friends (and the power of Facebook) I managed to smash my £250 target and raised over £2,175. I was completely overwhelmed! And of course I was very emotional when I crossed the finish line. 

I'm so pleased I took part with family and friends, it was a brilliant event. If someone had told me in May when I finished chemo that I'd be capable of walking 10k on a cold night in October I would have either laughed or cried depending upon the mood I was in!

I am incredibly lucky to live in Didsbury, so near to The Christie, which definitely made the treatment more manageable and I'm very grateful for that. Before my diagnosis I must have driven past the hospital thousands of times without really giving the place a second thought. Now I'm back in work and whenever I drive past The Christie on my daily commute, I feel a real sense of gratitude that hopefully this groundbreaking place on my doorstep has saved my life.

Thanks to Walk the Walk for its support in providing the cold cap scalp cooling equipment and also for its grant to support hypnocalm sessions for Christie patients like Natalie.

Please visit www.christies.org/ididit to find out what you can do to support The Christie in 2017.


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