Penny's Story - Staying Positive

Penny Lown was diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer in April 2012 and told she had just months to live

I am 53 years old and have three lovely adult children; Josh, Poppy and Ruby. Just over eighteen months ago, during the summer 2012, life was pretty good after marrying my husband Terry.

I have always been healthy and fit, and particularly motivated to maintain a healthy lifestyle as I worked as a midwife at The Royal Surrey County Hospital and rarely ill. It was towards the end of December 2012, during the festive season, when I became overwhelmed with tiredness and felt a sudden lack in energy. I also felt extremely down which was very unusual for me. In addition, I suffered from a series of nasty chesty coughs and colds and lost over 10lbs in weight without even trying.

These symptoms continued for the next few months and I visited my local GP surgery a number of times asking them to investigate further. I became even more worried when I was plagued with a continuous pain in my upper abdomen and back.

Despite my initial terminal prognosis, I was able to have surgery and am now enjoying a stress-free life in Devon.

At this point, it was suggested that the pain was related to muscular skeletal problems. They didn’t suggest or even think cancer was a possibility as I didn’t drink or smoke and exercised regularly, which would include swimming over 100 laps in one session.

It was another few months of going back and forth to the doctors, complaining of the same symptoms and finally in April 2013, I was sent for further tests. I had already at this time suspected that pancreatic cancer was a possibility having read an article about Ali Stunt, founder of Pancreatic Cancer Action, who had experienced similar symptoms to me before being diagnosed.

Following initial tests, I was then sent for a PET scan to look for cancer cells. I went for the results and was told that no cancer cells had shown up on my lung but cells were showing up on my pancreas.

Even though I suspected it, it was a terrible shock to hear the words ‘you have pancreatic cancer’ as I knew all too well what a terrible cancer it was. My father had died from the same cancer at the age of 54.

A few days after I was diagnosed, the reality hit and I was beyond devastated. Getting used to the idea of having a potentially terminal illness leads you to experience a period of bereavement. You suddenly become aware of your own mortality. It’s a terrible shock, it hits you like a truck.

As my cancer, at the time, was considered terminal, I was told that I could have chemotherapy, but it would be a palliative way of extending my life, not a cure.

The treatment made me so exhausted that I could not get out of bed some days, but after three months, tests showed that my tumour had shrunk to virtually nothing, so I started on a further three-month course of chemotherapy followed by radiotherapy. Before started chemotherapy treatment, my tumour was metastatic, it had spread to other organs in my body, but miraculously after radiotherapy, the metastatic tumours could not be seen.

Despite my initial terminal prognosis, my cancer was now operable and in April 2014, I underwent the Whipple's Procedure to remove the part of the pancreas exposed to chemotherapy.

This year, my tests so far have all come back very positive and my cancer markers are going down which is very reassuring. In September 2016, I had some recent new symptoms which concerned me so I had further tests to rule out anything sinister but thankfully my oncologist gave me the news that I wanted to hear – I had a clean bill of health.

I am resigned to the fact that the worry that the cancer will come back is never really going to leave until my 10 year remission period has come to an end but I believe as long as I work to stay healthy, I will be healthy. I also owe so much to my family and friends who have been a wonderful support. I believe a positive attitude will help me put on a strong battle against this grim disease. I went through the stage where I went to bed crying every night but I have come out the other side. Now I wake up in the morning and I am glad to be alive.

Last year I moved to Devon with my husband, where I am focussed on living well and having a tranquil, stress-free life close to the sea. I have recently begun working as a midwife again which I love and I’m also seeing my children follow their dreams. My children, who have all been emotionally affected by my cancer journey, have also turned their lives around. My son was moping about a bit, working in a guitar shop now has a successful career in recruitment; My eldest daughter moved from a stressful job in the music industry to running a successful pub in London and my youngest daughter is training to become a teacher.

My advice to anyone dealing with cancer is to focus on your mental well-being. Stay positive, healthy and don’t go through it alone, lean on your friends and family. Be there for them too!

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