THERE are just five days until my 40th – and I’m an emotional wreck who keeps bursting into tears.
But unlike my friends who have been dreading the big 4-0, I’m not crying because I’m worried about wrinkles or goals I haven’t yet ticked off.
My tears are happy tears, because I get to celebrate a birthday I shouldn’t have lived to see.
When I was diagnosed with stage 4 bowel cancer at the age of 35, doctors weren’t confident I would make it to 36, let alone 40.
Back then I was a different person. A busy working mum to Eloise, then seven, and Hugo, nine, I rushed from lesson to lesson as a deputy headteacher, barely seeing the kids or my husband Seb, 41, during the week. I spent my life living for a future I assumed I’d have.
Looking back, I can see that I ploughed on, too busy to listen to what my body was trying
to tell me. I had all the typical symptoms of bowel cancer, but I put them down to being busy. I lost weight, I was exhausted and
my bowel habits had changed. But most importantly, I was sometimes passing blood
in my poo. I just assumed it was piles, while my GP thought it might be IBS. Tests came back normal and a few more appointments later I was reassured it was just stress.
When the blood didn’t go away, I paid to see a specialist privately and had a colonoscopy. I couldn’t get an NHS referral because I was told I didn’t have any red flags – I was “too young”.
But then, a few days before Christmas 2016, I heard the words: “it’s cancer.” It wasn’t just cancer either, it was late-stage cancer that within weeks spread to my lungs.
Overnight my world came crashing down. I went from planning a future to only letting myself live a few weeks ahead, when I would have my next scan.
The life I once took for granted suddenly became so fragile and precious.
I don’t think any of us could really believe it, and we were clutching at straws hoping we would wake up and be told it was all a mistake. I
t was only when I started chemo that the reality hit home.
Since then, I’ve had more than 100 cycles of chemo and targeted drug therapy, radiotherapy, CyberKnife, NanoKnife, as well as 13 different operations to treat tumours in my bowel, lungs and liver.
That’s why it was only a few weeks ago that I let myself believe I might live to see my fifth decade, complete with a glass of champagne in my hand.
Although I normally love a party, I’m not planning a big bash to celebrate. Instead, I just want to spend the day with Seb, the kids and a few close friends, savouring every moment – and the moments yet to come.
I can’t wait for the grey hairs, the laughter lines to spread further across my face, and to feel the aches and pains that come with getting older.
When I think all that could be taken away from me, I treasure the thought of it all.
That said, the road to getting this far hasn’t been easy. Just a few months ago, the idea of making 40 felt like a pipe dream, as the drugs that had kept me alive for years stopped working.
A tumour that’s wrapped around my bile duct started to grow again, and as a result my liver began to fail.
For the first time, I felt like my body was shutting down – and I was terrified.
Death has always been at the back of my mind, but it felt comfortably far enough away. Until then.
On June 23, I was rushed to hospital for an emergency operation to insert a stent into my liver to try to reverse the organ failure.
Thanks to my incredible team of heroic medics, it worked.
After a brush with sepsis while I recovered, I was deemed fit enough to try chemotherapy again.
And that’s where I am right now, ploughing on, not really knowing what my future holds.
Beyond this chemo, I don’t have many other options, treatment-wise.
The best birthday present I could wish for is scans showing it’s working and keeping my cancer at bay.
All I ask is that my tumours are stable – that’s good enough for me at this stage.
Who knows what new clinical trials or experimental drugs might be out there?
It gives me hope that a team of scientists somewhere might give me my next lifeline.
Just a few weeks ago, I was sitting at home attaching hundreds of labels to my kids’ school uniforms.
It’s a chore, but each label was a reminder of how lucky I am to be here, doing it for them.
My daughter Eloise has just started secondary school – another milestone in my cancer journey. Seeing them both off to school again didn’t seem possible.
I was told I wouldn’t see them grow up, and I probably still won’t. Chances are I will miss their weddings, children and their big birthdays.
It breaks my heart, but I am so thankful I get to celebrate my 40th with them.
I wouldn’t be here without my family’s love and support.
Seb is my rock – he’s the person who holds me at 3am when I’m consumed by fear and crying, who holds it all together when I don’t think I can do it any more.
He’s a brilliant dad and I know that if the day comes when I’m not around, all my wishes for the kids will be upheld.
Me dying isn’t something we talk about. I haven’t, and won’t, have that conversation with the kids until I feel we really need to.
I can’t have them living with that hanging over them.
Instead, we talk about school, and I say all the regular things mums do like: “Have you done your homework? Tidy your room.”
Their lives keep me busy – and they keep me alive.
I’ve lost too many friends to cancer already, and earlier this month was thrown by yet another young life lost when Sarah Harding died.
I’d never met her, but she was the same age as me, and should have celebrated her 40th birthday just weeks after me.
It’s yet another stark reminder of the devastation this disease can cause. Sarah was young, fit and healthy, but she still got cancer.
Her story, and mine, are no longer just ours.
It’s the story of 356,000 people who each year hear that devastating diagnosis.
Cancer will happen to one in two of us, you are never too young, and catching it early really can save your life.
I’ve had to learn those lessons while living in the shadow of a late diagnosis.
That’s why every birthday – and this one especially – is a privilege.
Cancer has taught me a lot, but most of all that nothing in life is certain.
So while I get ready to turn 40, do one thing for me – a birthday present if you like.
Once a month, stop and check your body for the signs and symptoms of cancer, and always see your GP if you’re worried. If my experience stops one person from facing all this, it’s worth it.
As told to: Lizzie Parry Photography: Dan Williams/NGN, Instagram/Deborah James
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