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Kim Gray: "Cancer is not just a physical disease, but also a mental one"

08 November 2017

Kim Gray Emma graduation

Kim is now two and a half years NED (no evidence of disease) since finishing chemo and she hopes that sharing her story will provide support and encouragement for other women who have just been diagnosed, or who are going through treatment.

"I was diagnosed with stage 4 OC in the summer of 2016, just as my daughter was about to go off to Bristol to start her graphics degree. After my diagnosis she didn’t want to go but I was determined that she should continue her plans. That first year was difficult to say the least with me going to Bristol in between my chemo and her getting time off when I had my surgery but we got through it. She graduated with First class honours this summer and we had such a beautiful day. There were many times in the last three years that I honestly didn’t think I’d be there to see her graduate so you can imagine it was an emotional day and I feel so very lucky and thankful to be alive and well. We are so proud of everything she’s achieved and to be honest I’m relieved that my cancer diagnosis didn’t get in the way of her following her dream. 

I didn't think I would make it to Christmas, let alone my next wedding anniversary and birthday. But we have just celebrated our 31st wedding anniversary and my 55th birthday. There have been ups and downs over the last year to say the least, but many good times. I am so thankful for the year I’ve had and the support from my amazing husband, family and friends...

In 2015, my husband and I decided we needed to make a change to our stressful lifestyles and take some time out of our busy jobs. Our mothers had both been seriously ill and had moved in with us for a couple of months, so we’d had an awful summer to say the least.

We decided to treat ourselves to a family holiday to Mauritius, where we had a wonderful, relaxing time swimming and kayaking. 

One evening I felt very bloated and thought the yellowfin tuna I had eaten for lunch had upset my stomach. The next day I saw the hotel nurse who gave me some indigestion tablets, but over the next couple of days I felt increasingly worse, and noticed my stomach getting bigger and bigger. I ended up looking about seven months pregnant and by Friday I couldn’t lie down, was having trouble eating and difficulty walking. The hotel doctor examined me and sent me straight to hospital, where I met Dr Gopal — the doctor who was to become our guardian angel.

On examining me, he said he thought the bloating was fluid and ran some blood tests and scans. I was told there was a chance it could be cancer, but first I needed an urgent laparoscopy so he could drain the fluid, have a look around and take some biopsies.

I had the procedure on the Sunday morning and afterwards Dr Gopal broke the news that I had ovarian cancer. We were shell-shocked. This was not the perfect holiday I had wanted for my beautiful daughter and we felt extra vulnerable being so far from home.

Dr Gopal offered support and reassured us that I was fit and strong and would cope well with the chemo and surgery. I remembered his words often whilst having treatment. Although he did his best, our insurance company made an awful situation worse and, on the day of our flight, informed me that if I took the flight our insurance would be void. 

After what seemed like an eternity, we flew home four days later. Although we were desperate to get back, I also remember the emotion when the wheels hit the tarmac at Heathrow. We’d been in a bubble and now had to face up to the fact that the nightmare was a reality.

"Cancer is not just a physical disease, but also a mental one — and it can mess with your head if you allow it to."

Kim Gray

After five weeks of further tests, and another drain as the ascites had come back, it was confirmed that I had advanced stage 4 high grade serous ovarian cancer. The cancer had spread to my peritoneum, (the protective layer covering the abdomen), and I also had some enlarged nodes. 

I was inoperable and needed chemotherapy first to reduce the tumours. Thankfully the chemo did its job and I was lucky not to suffer too many side effects, mainly aches in my legs and feet, and fatigue. I managed to endure the cold cap, (a bit like wearing a freezer on your head), for the 6 1/2 hours of chemotherapy, which helped me keep most of my hair. Although it did thin and I ended up looking like Friar Tuck with a bit of a bald patch! After three cycles of chemo, the scan confirmed that the cancer had reduced enough to go ahead with the surgery.

I had an eight-hour surgery in November 2016 at St Thomas’s. Recovering from the surgery was hard; I needed a radical hysterectomy and the disease stripped from my peritoneum. Cancer was also found under my diaphragm, which lead to some breathing issues, so I was on oxygen following surgery. I also needed heavy duty antibiotics due to an infection and hospital-acquired pneumonia.

After ten days in hospital I came home still frightened to sleep, breathless and hardly able to walk. My amazing husband Andy encouraged me to walk a little further each day and slowly my body healed. I needed two more rounds of chemo after surgery, which were much harder as my body was obviously still recovering.

Kim Gray 2

I started Avastin with my sixth cycle of chemo and have an IV every 3 weeks. The NHS fund it for a year, meaning it will end in January 2018, which makes me a little nervous.

Ovarian cancer is notorious for coming back when diagnosed at a late stage, which the majority of women are. I heard one lady liken it to ‘The Terminator’. You battle through your surgery, finish your chemo and start to rebuild your life, but hear the voice “I’ll be back!”

However, the good news is that the longer you are in remission, the more likely you are to respond to more chemo. 

I am now nine months post chemo and still - fingers crossed - NED (no evidence of disease). My CA125 blood test was 3880 when diagnosed and is now 9 (anything under 35 is normal). I’ve recovered well from surgery and am back to the gym, Zumba and walking our rescue dog, and I aim for my 10,000 steps a day on my Fitbit! 

What I didn’t realise was that cancer is not just a physical disease, but also a mental one — and it can mess with your head if you allow it to. When diagnosed you feel many emotions including anger (why me?) and loss. It’s a grieving process for the person you once were, and the future you dreamed of. Counselling helps and I’ve had lots of support from the Dimbleby trust at Guys, and I’m determined to make the most of every day.

No one can tell me why I got ovarian cancer (I don’t have the BRCA mutation) or how long I had it for before I was diagnosed. They suggested anything from nine months, but could be up to two years.

What I don’t understand is why I didn’t know more about it and its possible symptoms, especially when I reached the 50+ age bracket.

In hindsight, when I look back I did maybe have some warning signs. I’d started to wee more frequently, often needing to get up at night; I developed a larger tummy and hunched shoulders, and there were a couple of occasions when I got a stabbing pain when walking. But I just put them down to getting older and never mentioned them to the GP. I'd also seen a private gynaecologist back in 2009 as I had an early menopause and vaguely remember her suggesting I have regular check-ups. But I felt well and was busy juggling working as a teacher; caring for my mother and mother-in-law and supporting the children through exams and university applications. 

I owe my life to the amazing doctors and nurses at Guys and St Thomas’s and there are many people in my position who are not so fortunate. Charities like Ovarian Cancer Action are doing great work to increase awareness and fund research into screening and treatments, but more needs to be done to beat this disease and save lives. 

There are mothers, daughters, sisters and wives who could be saved if diagnosed at an early stage. Please make sure you are aware of the symptoms, listen to your bodies and talk to your GP about any changes or concerns. Don’t be too busy to put your health first."

Kim Gray beach