In the run up to her 65th birthday, Valerie McPherson, a former legal secretary from Berkhamsted, had been following a strict diet and taking regular exercise in order to look her best for the big day. But instead of celebrating with family and friends, Valerie spent the day in hospital following a diagnosis of renal cancer.
Months of rigorous chemotherapy and drug treatment took its toll so when the Hospice’s Complementary Therapy Coordinator Sandy Winyard suggested a mini-makeover, Valerie jumped at the chance.
Here she describes her experience…
“As well as reducing my mobility, cancer has also drastically changed my appearance. When you go through chemotherapy and drug treatment your body isn’t the same any more. You look so old and when you look in the mirror you think ‘who is that?’ Having your hair and makeup done gives you a bit more confidence to go out and face the world.
“For the 18 months before I found out I had cancer I had been following a strict diet and doing regular exercise and I had lost about three stone. I was approaching my 65th birthday thinking that I was going to be the best 65-year-old I could be. But in actual fact I spent the day in hospital following a diagnosis of renal cancer.
“The first sign that all was not well was when I developed back pain in February 2017. I had been to the gym and thought I had pulled a muscle but over the next six weeks the pain got worse. Despite all the pain killers my back was getting increasingly painful. Instead of sleeping I was pacing the floor at night. Eventually, the pain became so bad I decided to go to A&E at Watford Hospital.
“After five days of morphine the pain came back, so my husband, Alan, took me to Stoke Mandeville Hospital where they gave me a CT and MRI scan. I was told I had renal cancer and that a secondary tumour was compressing the spinal cord, resulting in paralysis.
“I had an operation to remove the tumour of the spine to relieve the pressure on my spinal cord, followed by four intensive weeks of physiotherapy, but within a week of returning home the pain was back. Another MRI scan revealed the tumour had returned and any further operations in this area were not an option. I received five consecutive days of radiotherapy. It was a shocking blow. I had been getting on so well with physio and had even been able to walk halfway across a room unaided.
“Targeted drug therapy has followed with the aim of halting the spread of cancer throughout my body and so far this appears to be working. The care at Stoke Mandeville was fantastic and they were very supportive but because we live outside their catchment area no one was able to come out to see me. I didn’t have a consistent person to talk to – that’s where the Hospice came in.
“I had been to the Hospice a couple of times when I was working as a legal secretary, to get Wills signed and my local GP recommended that I come up for a visit. I’m very glad that I did. The Hospice has been the place that has offered me the consistent support I was looking for. Knowing that they are always there for me should I need help, even visiting me at home if necessary, this is all very reassuring when I am feeling vulnerable, or even if there is nothing I’m particularly concerned about, it is just nice to have someone phone up and say “how are you?”. That is just so lovely.
“They have also been fabulous to my husband as he is my main carer and I worry that my illness is a strain on him. The Hospice carer support team explained to him what was on offer to help relieve the pressure and now he has regular one-to-one sessions. We are also planning to do the SMILE (Self-management and independent Living for Everyday) course together. Again it takes the strain off me, knowing he has as much help and guidance and support that he needs.
“At the beginning of September I started coming to the Hospice for physiotherapy and found that I really enjoyed it. They certainly push you to achieve the most that can be expected, but in a safe and protective environment. I have been doing squats, walking using the parallel bars, stretching and using the cycle machine. It gives you confidence to practice these moves at the Hospice and then again at home in a more domestic situation. I can move around my kitchen holding onto worktops and go up and down stairs unaided. I help my husband prepare and cook dinner fairly regularly and even attempt a little bit of ironing (which I always did loath!) on the odd occasion.
“I also attended the colour and style workshop at the Hospice, which threw up lots of surprises. It turns out I had been looking at all the wrong colours. I tended to wear pastels but the stylist suggested I wear more autumnal colours, which was a revelation!
“I had been wearing a wig for a couple of months when Sandy suggested I had a wig fitting and a mini makeover with hair and wig stylist, Alison Kesby and Beauty and Massage Therapist Cathy Hutchin – I was thrilled! It’s something I have always wanted to do but have never got round to. It made me feel splendid, pampered and glamorous and showed me just how good I can look!
“I know that I will never get back properly to looking how I used to, but the team at the Hospice has shown me how to look as good as I possibly can, which is a huge fillip to my self-confidence and ego!”