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Real life: How I survived cancer

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In 2008, 31-year-old accountant Zoe Williams was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. She tells Stylist how she survived it and regained her self-esteem...

When people ask me if I felt unwell before I was diagnosed with cancer three years ago, I don’t know what to say. I’d given birth to my son, Charlie, six months earlier and wasn’t entirely sure how I should be feeling. Of course, I was tired and run-down, but I certainly didn’t feel ill.

There were no complications with Charlie’s birth, but when he was six months old, I felt a pain in my side. I thought it was just cramp, but the next morning I collapsed at a friend’s house and was rushed to A&E dizzy, sweating and slipping in and out of consciousness. Doctors suspected an ectopic pregnancy but soon discovered I actually had five cancerous tumours which had caused my liver to rupture.

I had choriocarcinoma in my liver, a cancer so rare it only affects between five and 10 women a year in the UK. Doctors think I probably had a twin pregnancy when I was carrying Charlie, but the twin died and cancerous cells from the placenta travelled to my liver. It would have happened too early on in the pregnancy to have been spotted in a routine scan. When the surgeon broke the news, he advised me not to research it. It was good advice – look my condition up on the internet and you find that nobody survives.

Getting on with life

For the first six weeks, I was a guinea pig. I was put on an intensive course of chemotherapy. Every six days I had sessions that lasted 27 hours and left me nauseous. I was getting so much attention from doctors, professors and students, I thought, ‘I’m going to die.’ My loved ones fell into two camps: supportive or scared. My dad said to me recently that he wanted to run away at points because he couldn’t cope with seeing his child dying. But he threw himself into taking care of Charlie and lightening the load for my husband.

The hospital staff had explained the side effects of chemo to me, so I knew I was going to lose my thick, shoulderlength blonde hair, but when it did happen, nothing could have prepared me for it. I talked about it a lot with fellow female patients – women having treatment for breast cancer wore ice caps during their chemotherapy to help prevent hair loss. They sat there laughing, wrapped in blankets saying, “Why am I sitting here with a block of ice on my head for the sake of vanity!”

Prior to diagnosis, I’d been quite vain. I was an ugly duckling as a child – overweight with big NHS glasses and bad acne – but I’d come into my own in sixth form, when I lost weight, ditched the glasses and became one of the most popular girls in school. My world changed with my looks and that had a huge impact on me. After I got ill, I’d walk along the street and people could see something was very wrong with me. Before, I’d have caught their attention for very different reasons.

I’d been having treatment for two months when I visited the hospital’s ‘wig man’, who came to sell them to patients. I was sceptical, but went along for fun and ended up buying three. With a wig on, I didn’t feel so conspicuous. It was a turning point. I got back into my morning routine – having a shower, brushing my teeth and doing my ‘hair’. Before I got the wigs, I couldn’t even face getting out of bed.

After six weeks, I started to respond to treatment and the hospital sent me home. In those six weeks, everything about my appearance had changed. I’d lost so much weight that my eyes were sunken and my skin was grey. They’d pumped me full of steroids so I had this big puffed-up face and a skinny body and I felt vile. I had the hair sorted, but I was still dubious about make-up. I was shocked every time I caught my reflection in the bathroom mirror. I had no eyelashes or eyebrows and it’s phenomenal how much that changes a face. I couldn’t see how make-up would make a difference though. And my normal products just wouldn’t have worked – after the chemo, my skin was so dry it would have just flaked off.

Then I found out about Look Good… Feel Better (LGFB). Charing Cross Hospital has a Maggie’s Cancer Care Centre which holds two-hour skincare and make-up workshops run by beauticians who give their time for free. They showed us how to use illuminator to bring out our eyes, how to even out our skin’s grey patches with foundations and taught us to use eyeliner when we couldn’t use mascara. Most important of all, they understood that your looks can have a massive impact on how you feel, and they focussed on helping us regain our self-esteem. From then on, I’d rock the Sinead O’Connor look if I didn’t fancy wearing a wig. I’d whack on eyeliner and go out with my numberthree crop – I’d taken the plunge and shaved my head – because the make-up had given me my confidence back. It was incredibly powerful at such a devastating and difficult time.

After the workshop, I went to stay with a friend on New Year’s Eve. I got the train, but was running late so I had to take my scarf off and get ready on the train. Everyone stared, but I did my make-up, put my wig on and got off feeling fabulous. I’d never have exposed myself like that before LGFB. Nearly two and a half years after I went into remission, I still support the charity. When a women is suffering from cancer, there’s still a person in there, a person who is beautiful and vibrant.”

Until Christmas, Emerald Street, Stylist’s daily sister email, will be donating £1 to Look Good… Feel Better for every person who signs up. Go to emeraldstreet.com to make your donation.

Words : Lizzie Pook

Photography: Megan Taylor

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