Johanna's story

Johanna Blake was diagnosed with advanced bowel cancer back in 2016. Five years on from receiving revolutionary cancer surgery, she is cancer free and feeling better than ever. Here she reflects on her treatment at the hospital and the expert care that helped her get to where she is today.
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Five years cancer free, thanks to revolutionary cancer surgery

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Johanna Blake was diagnosed with advanced bowel cancer back in 2016. Five years on from receiving revolutionary cancer surgery at The Christie Private Care in Manchester, part of HCA Healthcare UK, she is cancer free and feeling better than ever. Here she reflects on her treatment at the hospital and the expert care that helped her get to where she is today.

From the beginning

My cancer story started back in 2011, when I felt the most excruciating abdominal pain that I’ve ever felt. I went to see my local GP, but it was dismissed as a urine infection and a few days later the pain settled. However, fast forward over four years and in late 2015, I again felt that something was wrong. Instead of experiencing the intense pain I had previously, I felt pressure in my lower bowel.  

By chance, at a similar time I received a flyer through my letterbox from a company offering a full-body MOT, which I decided to opt for. The results from these tests revealed that my sample showed signs of bowel cancer, and that I should immediately see my GP and request a colonoscopy.  

I visited my local hospital in Telford for a colonoscopy and on the very same day, I was told that I had bowel cancer. Although I was told it may have been slow-growing, it was at a very advanced stage and it had occluded my large bowel. I was so shocked; I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t have any of the typical bowel cancer symptoms, which is why it’s so important to trust your instincts and act when you think something could be wrong. 

Dealing with my diagnosis

Both of my sons are doctors, so after processing my diagnosis, they were able to tell me that The Christie in Manchester was one of the best hospitals to receive cancer treatment, especially knowing how advanced my cancer was.

Knowing I had private medical insurance, I looked at The Christie website to find the right consultant to treat me. I found Mr Chelliah Selvasekar, Consultant Colorectal and Laparoscopic Surgeon at The Christie Private Care, and two weeks after my initial diagnosis, I was sitting in his office. I had a CT scan, and the next day I was booked in for an MRI scan. I was so impressed by the speed at which I could be seen and have the tests completed.  

Within a week of having both of these tests, I was back in the consultation room with Mr Selvasekar and my two sons. He explained that the cancer has spread to my omentum (the fatty tissue around the abdomen) and that the best way to treat the cancer was to have cytoreductive surgery with HIPEC – a major, complex operation which is only performed at The Christie and one other centre in the whole of the UK. 

Mr Selvasekar explained everything in detail to me, and even when I needed to take a moment as it was quite overwhelming, he made sure he explained everything to my sons, so that they had all of the information we would need ahead of the surgery. 

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Operation day

My operation took place in March 2016 and I was in theatre for over nine hours. I was on the intensive care unit for two nights and then on the ward for a further two weeks, where I was also given an ileostomy. 

I couldn’t fault the care I received, both in ITU and on the ward. I was nervous initially about moving to the ward, as my care in ITU appeared quite complex. I still had a lot of tubes fitted, but in fact I had nothing to worry about. The transition of care to the ward was fantastic - I felt very well looked after. 

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After two weeks, I was discharged. I found it strange having the ileostomy (stoma) bag at first, but soon got quite used to it. After 18 months, it was reversed, but before it was removed, I took part in Maggie’s on the Runway, a fundraising event to raise money for Maggie’s - a charity which provides free cancer support and information and is so close to my heart.

I modelled in designer underwear, all in aid of charity, something which was very nerve-wracking as I chose to show my stoma bag whilst walking the runway! The whole event raised over £250,000 - it was so amazing to be a part of. 

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After my operation

After my surgery with Mr Selvasekar, I was then referred to Mr Mark Saunders, Clinical Oncologist at The Christie Private Care, to start a programme of chemotherapy.

I was given the option of having my chemo at my local hospital for convenience, but I didn’t hesitate to continue my treatment at The Christie Private Care. It meant I would have a two-hour journey there, several hours of chemotherapy and then a two-hour journey back, but I knew that I would have such an unrivalled level of care that it was 100% worth it. 

Me and my CNS – such an important part of my journey

One of the most prominent figures in my care after surgery has been Victoria Little, my Clinical Nurse Specialist. She would deliver the “You’re clear” scan result to me after speaking with Mr Selvasekar, she would answer any questions that my family or I had about my appointments, scans or treatment.

She would visit me on the ward or often call me before a chemotherapy session. She was more often present during consultations with Mr Selvasekar. She has so much time for her patients and for that I am incredibly grateful. 

I could call her anytime and she would always be so responsive. For example, a few months after my surgery, I felt unwell on the way to a work meeting. I began vomiting uncontrollably. I called Victoria, and within minutes she had arranged my immediate admission back into The Christie Private Care, where it was determined that I had an obstruction.

On another occasion, I woke up one morning with pain in my leg so bad that I couldn’t get out of bed. Again, I turned to Victoria, panicking that this could mean that I had bone cancer. An MRI scan was arranged immediately, and cancer was ruled out. I was referred to a neurological consultant who confirmed that I in fact had a slipped disc in my back, which was quickly treated with injections. It’s this calmness, speed and responsiveness from Victoria which I really benefitted from.  

Recovery and beyond

Since my discharge, I have had regular scans to check whether the cancer had returned. More recently, the scans have moved to annually.

The scans are so anxiety-inducing, so I’m happy that they will be less frequent now. I was told by Mr Selvasekar that the longer the cancer stays away, the better the outcome, which was so reassuring to me.  

Mr Selvasekar has been amazing through all of this – from the first consultation I had with him, he was positive and gave me hope. I left every consultation thinking that he had given me a lifeline, rather than a life sentence, and for that I couldn’t be more grateful.

Learn more about the care we provide for patients with bowel cancer

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