Beating bowel cancer together

Debra Michaels, 57 from Grantham

I was diagnosed with stage 3 bowel cancer in May 2010.

I first noticed a change in bowel habits and blood in my poo in 2008. I was living between the UK and Florida at the time, as I’m married to an American. My father had also had bowel cancer and I had an appointment booked to see his surgeon in January 2009. However, visa complications and my father’s sudden death meant my appointment was delayed.

Eventually I was able to return the UK in February 2010 and get an appointment, after receiving my green card for the US. I was diagnosed with stage 3 bowel cancer. I had radiotherapy, chemotherapy and my first operation eight months later. I was very ill and it took me months to recover enough to have a further six months of chemotherapy. I also had a temporary ileostomy.

After chemotherapy they did tests to see if everything had healed so I could have the ileostomy reversed. However, they found that I hadn’t healed well; I had a vaginal fistula and the ileostomy couldn’t be reversed. This was completely unexpected to me and for the first time since my diagnosis, I cried. As I’m an actress I have always been physically and mentally fit and my body is a huge part of my identity. I felt like I was living in someone else’s body and couldn’t get out of it. To me, this was more devastating than the cancer diagnosis.

I was recommended to speak to Professor Mark Phillips who is an expert in post-op. I met with him but it sounded like a stoma reversal might prove more problematic than the bag. I was too tired and didn’t think I could go through another major surgery only to be disappointed, so I said no.

I had always been a size 8/10 for as long as I could remember, but chemo, steroids, a diet of foods I wouldn’t normally eat and the inability to exercise properly meant I’d put weight on and was now a size 16/18 at my heaviest. I decided it was time to try get back to work in this new alien body so I told my agent to start putting me up for new things. I took new photos, auditioned and got a part in a play. Being back at work was a joy and a challenge and at times very scary, but it was where I belonged and I was happy again. 

Although I didn’t have cancer anymore, I had serious medical issues as a result of it.

I decided to give the reversal operation one more try. I’d proved to myself that I could get back to work with the bag so if the operation was unsuccessful I would get on with life and my career with a stoma. Before this decision I had auditioned and got another job and part in a movie, so I was in a good place.

My reversal was scheduled for March 2016. There were no guarantees and they didn’t know whether they would be able to reattach everything successfully. I woke up after surgery and my torso had scars horizontally and vertically but I thought I could work with this. I was very ill again post-surgery and had to be readmitted. At that time I wasn’t sure I’d done the right thing, as my bowel control was non-existent and I was in a lot of pain and discomfort.

I believed my body and mind would pull me through as it had done all along and by December I got the part in the Royal National Theatre touring production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, travelling all over the UK and then the world. I’m on tour and getting better, stronger and more in control every day. I would love to say that everything has worked out fine and for the most part it has.

My American husband came to the UK full time in July 2015, to care for me after my operations in 2015 and 2016. We didn’t know whether they would be successful or what the result would be so we decided to sell my flat in London and relocate to Grantham, where one of my sisters lived, and be mortgage free.

We’d both had health issues that had impacted our finances drastically so being in the UK, where all my treatment was, seemed the sensible thing to do. We applied as husband and wife to the Home Office for him to be granted leave to remain for 10 years, expecting it to go through without a hitch. He’d then be able to work and care for me and I would have time to heal and get myself fit and ready for work.

We were completely blindsided when we were told our circumstances warranted special attention for humanitarian reasons and then devastated when his application was denied under those same reasons. The deciding criteria was that I wasn’t sick anymore and had family who could take care of me. We were just advised to stay in touch via Skype.

Although I didn’t have cancer anymore, I had serious medical issues as a result of it. My two sisters who had previously cared for me had also now both been diagnosed with chronic kidney disease and an aneurysm respectively, so couldn’t help me. I had not been able to work for the better part of six years because I was too sick.

This was so traumatic for both of us and we couldn’t believe that we were being penalised because I’d been sick. I had just been offered the job working on The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time tour, but I could only do this job with my husband’s help and care.

We consulted a lawyer, who advised that appealing would be futile unless I got sicker again and said we should wait, as he wouldn’t be a priority. The Home Office then contacted us and said he needed to arrange to leave the country ASAP, or they would remove him. This was and is unacceptable. He has nowhere to live in America and I can’t move there as my residency there has been revoked since being sick.

It’s been challenging to recover, adapt and rebuild myself, and my life, and now I am being asked to do it without the care, support and love of my husband. He is currently still in the UK, as circumstances have made it impossible for him to return, however he has to report to the police station every two weeks and he’s not allowed to leave Grantham.

He is a 62 year-old man, Gregg Baker, an international opera singer who has worked since he was 15, whose only crime is being married to an English woman who got cancer.

We shouldn’t be penalised because I’ve been sick. My doctors have said that without his care I wouldn’t have survived and wouldn’t have been able to work. I’m hoping that in the future, Gregg and I will be able to live in the country of our choice.

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