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“Seven years ago I was told I had just months to live” – Karen’s story of living well with cancer


Karen, 59, was told she only had months to live when she was diagnosed with bowel cancer seven years ago. Now, she lives 'near normal life' on a combination of chemotherapy and the targeted drug cetuximab. Here she tells her story.

Posted on 23 May, 2022 by Karen O'Malley

Being diagnosed with bowel cancer was such a terrible shock. It happened in 2015 – I’d gone to hospital via A&E and had emergency surgery to remove what they thought was an abscess in my appendix. I woke up to be told a mass had been removed from my large colon and despite having nothing confirmed at that stage, I felt I knew I had cancer.

Shortly after, I started chemotherapy, which did not work and following five cycles, I was told that the cancer had spread further into my peritoneum and into my liver. At this point, my oncologist told me I was no longer curable, was inoperable and that my disease was terminal. She started talking about palliative chemotherapy, and said if this didn’t work, I would have six to nine months but even if it did, I was not expected to live beyond the year.

The news crushed me. I didn’t want to get out of bed, and I didn’t know what to do. It felt like I was in a kind of surreal world. I remember going through my winter clothes and donating them to charity shops. I wouldn’t need them anymore.

A second opinion

One of my very good friends gave me a good, hard talking to. “You don’t have to accept this prognosis,” she said. “This is not you, you’re not passive – challenge it and get a second opinion.” And with the help of counselling, I did just that.

I got a new oncologist and continued on treatment of FOLFIRI, a chemotherapy combination, and Cetuximab which is a targeted drug. Very rapidly, my tumour markers reduced, and my pain disappeared. My scan results showed continual reduction in all tumours, and I started to gain mental and physical strength.

After 18 cycles, I was able to have the two major surgeries I was told I wouldn't get. I continue on the same treatment every two weeks and have now had 132 cycles in total!

It’s been the start of a whole new life for me. I'll be 60 this year and am planning a garden party at home later in summer to celebrate – complete with cocktail bar and saxophone player! It is after all, a birthday I never ever thought I'd see back in 2016.

My husband, Ross, and three sons have been an incredible support throughout. Michael is 35, Fraser is 34 and Euan in 30. Thanks to my treatment I have been here to welcome my three grandsons into the world – Harry, five, is at school, and both Cameron and Marty are three and at nursery.

Karen sits outside, surrounded by her three grandsons

Image: Karen with her grandchildren. Credit: John Angerson

In fact, I delivered Cameron at his home in the bath following a very quick labour! I had been a midwife way back in 1986 and thankfully it all came back to me. I was on standby to look after my son’s eldest son and I got a call at 4.20am from my son to say he thought the baby was on the way so would I like to pop round.

I was so excited. I threw on my clothes and drove round - a journey of one minute. My daughter-in-law was trying to relax in a nice deep bubble bath as my son was on the phone to the hospital to arrange to go in. I went to make a coffee while I waited for them to be ready to leave when I heard, ‘MUM!’. I went into the bathrooms where things were clearly progressing very quickly. I assessed progress and in the calmest of voices I said that at the next contraction she should push. I told my son that he should dial 999 and tell the operator that we were having an unplanned home birth in the bath!

Cameron arrived soon after and his birth was all so calm and just textbook. We had him all dried off and resting on his mummy's chest still in the bath when the paramedics arrived soon after. It was a wonderful, incredible experience to be able to bring my own grandson into the world and he's the most adorable and caring little person you could ever meet.

Living well with cancer

The last few years have brought so much joy to my life, and I’m incredibly grateful for everything I’ve been here to experience.

Living well with cancer is my reality. I spend most of my time with my family – I’m very involved and do pick-ups from school and nursery. Three years ago, I got my little dog Poppy, and I love going on walks with her. I also started wild swimming nearly four years ago as it makes me feel so well and alive.

Karen stands on a beach with mountains in the background, wearing a grey hoodie and blue baseball cap

Image: Karen is living well with cancer, thanks to a combination therapy. Credit: John Angerson

I’m so very fortunate and I live a good, near normal life. Treatment days are every other Wednesday and generally they’re days of sitting down and doing home admin. It does wipe me out and I do get tired, but it’s never stopped me doing anything I want to do if it comes up.

Combination treatment

It’s been so important for me to have a positive mindset about the drugs I’m taking. The chemotherapy drugs and targeted drug work together and keep the cancer at bay. Every four months I go for a routine CT scan and currently there is no sign of cancer.

As we move on from the pandemic, it’s time to put the spotlight back on cancer. I'm here today because of work led by scientists and researchers. The work they are doing every day fills me with hope for cancer patients. There are more and more of us living well with cancer – and there’s a general feeling that there’s been a turning point in terms of treatment options.

But we’re not there yet. I help to moderate a Bowel Cancer UK forum and there are far too many people we’ve lost from this disease. It's just so sad. I know I'm one of the lucky ones because not everyone responds well to targeted drugs. The Institute of Cancer Research's work to find more options and kinder treatments for cancer patients is so important. That’s why I’m supporting their Spring Appeal.

Our research is already helping patients to live longer and live well. But cancer can adapt and evolve to evade treatment, so we are looking for new ways to stay one-step-ahead and outsmart cancer. Using treatments in combination is one way of doing this. Please support our research to unlock new combination therapies, so more people will survive cancer.

Let’s finish cancer, together.

Donate today


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