Coming back from cancer

There’s a saying ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ and this is certainly something to which I can relate.

Woman reflecting and enjoying the peaceful sunset at the harbour.Recently I was introduced to the concept of post-traumatic growth (PTG), setting out how people who have experienced traumatic events can grow in some or all of five key aspects: relating to others, finding new directions for their life, personal strength, spiritual growth and appreciation of life.

The researchers are not suggesting that trauma is replaced completely by growth: rather that ‘growth occurs within the context of pain and loss’.

For me, the traumatic episode began when I noticed a small scab on my nose which wasn’t healing, but as I was very stressed I decided to wait and see if it healed while we were on holiday.

It got worse and a trip to my GP confirmed that I had a basal cell carcinoma, a non-fatal form of cancer, but one which nevertheless needed removing before it burrowed into other parts of my face.

The dermatology consultant explained how they could ‘drill’ it out and do ‘a little skin flap’ to cover the hole. I was given a leaflet which spoke reassuringly of a minor procedure under local anaesthetic.

Hilary 1

Christmas Day 2012, four days after the first operation.

So I was pretty shocked on meeting the plastic surgeon to be shown horrific photographs of people whose faces he had sliced in two.

‘Little skin flaps’, it transpired, involved taking a wedge of face from forehead to browbone, turning the skin and sewing it down the nose. Cartilage would be taken from behind one ear to rebuild the nostril.

But I tried to focus hard on the final photos which showed faces put back together with minimal scarring. I was advised that I should take six weeks off work, and as my surgery was scheduled just before Christmas I settled my nerves with thoughts of cosy hibernation, knitting and making marmalade.

I hadn’t expected to be collapsing in a sobbing heap as round after round of operations, follow-up visits, having stitches removed and being told that I had to wait for the bruising, neuropathic pain, weird sensations, skin irritation and disfigurement to heal, all took their toll.

Hilary 2

February 2013, after the second op.

Even my hair was damaged because all the dried blood after surgery made it impossible to brush without breaking it – and I couldn’t wash the blood out while the stitches were in my scalp.

As it wasn’t life threatening I didn’t feel I could call on any cancer support services. But from a tiny lesion on my nose, the whole of one side of my head was now in physical trauma and I was battling terror that I would never look nice again.

People said they couldn’t see the scars and thought I was just being vain, but they didn’t understand the pain I was experiencing.

Gaining control

I was in a really bad place psychologically for a very long time, but slowly I began to take control of my appearance. I found some great make-up that helped with physical healing as well as giving effective coverage of the scars. I even learned to apply it properly, something which had previously been quite a mystery to me.

July 2013. Four months after the final operation, feeling happy and confident that day.

July 2013. Four months after the final operation, feeling happy and confident that day.

It also re-connected me to childhood trauma, causing flashbacks and nightmares.

The bone bruising gradually subsided after many months, and I nursed my hair back to health too.

Going through this helped me to really reflect on my priorities and ambitions. I used my sick leave to develop my business, taking my Food Hygiene Certificate so I could sell my preserves and pickles commercially, and opening an Etsy shop to sell my sewing and knitting.

I found the courage to move further down the self-employment route, offering therapeutic crafting to people who have also experienced trauma and distress.

Would I go through that surgical process again?  Not likely!  And I still have days when I feel very upset and angry about it.

But I did find deep inner resources that helped me heal, and it gave me the courage to turn my business dreams into reality.

In doing so, I really hope I can offer empathy and compassion to other people experiencing traumatic circumstances so that they can find healing and engage in post-traumatic growth.

Find out more…

Hilary Wellington

About Hilary Wellington

I have over 30 years' professional experience of working with Disabled people, in health and social care and in teaching and support work in higher education. I'm a passionate textiles crafter, and am combining these two threads of my life in my therapeutic crafting and reminiscence therapy social business.