Beating bowel cancer together

Cancer, Covid and Crumpets

Friday 6 November 2020

Bobby Bertoli, 28 from London, shares with us how he got through lockdown whilst being diagnosed and treated for stage 4 bowel cancer.

At 27 years old, one month into the UK's nationwide lockdown, I was diagnosed with stage 4 bowel cancer. Along with thousands of newly identified cancer patients, I was thrust into an intensely emotional period at a time when society was rapidly closing in on itself.

I had absolutely no idea how I would respond to treatment and, perhaps more importantly, no idea how the people around me would react.

The following weeks and months would show me just how powerful this disease can be. Not just in terms of my body, but with regards to the immense warmth it inspires in people.

My diagnosis taught me that cancer can draw strength from anyone it touches. It didn't take long for me to recognise the importance of the cancer support community.

Beginning with the incredibly sensitive care I received from NHS staff, to youth cancer charities such as Trekstock and even a handful of thoughtful social media accounts.

For anyone going through the initial stages of their diagnosis, I would highly recommend engaging with the latter – in your own time. The bravery, humour and love that radiates from Instagram accounts like @bowelbabe, @missiontoremission and @fvuckcancerfashion has not only helped me come to terms with my illness, it has deepened my respect for human empathy and resilience. Finding your own source of inspiration and strength is tough, especially during a period of enforced isolation.

But there are people out there facing up to the same struggle, encountering the same setbacks, and they are absolutely bossing it. I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have discovered just a handful of them.

At first, it can be difficult to interact with others enduring this terrible disease. I think that's completely understandable. Our instinctive response to "bad" news is often to build the walls high and curl up within them.

In my experience though, opening up about my diagnoses and learning from people that are facing similar challenges has been enormously helpful. Gradually, my own emotional response to cancer has started to make sense.

I am not the only one whose priorities are coming sharply into focus as a result of my illness. Other patients are also discovering a new appreciation for how strong our bodies can be. I am not alone in finding a simple joy in movement and comfort. Covid might have closed off some of the more traditional channels of support for cancer patients, but there is still a huge amount to gain from sharing stories and struggles with compassionate strangers.

Ultimately, I think the goal for anyone faced with the blunt absoluteness of their own mortality is to find a way of morphing fear into self-care. Knowing what it is you need in order to feel safe and calm is so important, especially when your body is having to deal with cancer treatment.

For me, this meant spending time with good listeners (even if it was over Zoom!), ensuring I understood my treatment plan (this often meant asking my Oncologist to repeatedly explain their decisions) and continuously treating myself to tasty culinary delights. Crumpets became a real cornerstone of this self-care bonanza, perhaps worryingly so.

But my ultimate goal remained constant – to turn my anxiety into something healthy and sustainable. This will manifest itself differently for different people. But whatever it is you need to gain a sense of control over your diagnosis, I have absolutely no doubt that a combination of emotional support and self-care will help anyone to get through this disease.

I certainly don't want to give the impression that living with cancer is all rainbows and crumpets. Most people enduring treatment only show a fraction of what they are going through.

I am incredibly lucky to have a strikingly supportive group of people around me, and still there are some struggles that are too intimate or too upsetting to talk about openly.

I only hope that this article reaches someone that's looking for new ways to overcome those struggles. In the wise words of @missiontoremission: "To all of you who are tired but still going... I see you, my heart is with you. Keep on going. We can do this."

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