Helen Setterfield, a retired school teacher, lives in Belfast with her husband David. She has three children Andrew, Stephen and Kathryn as well as four grandchildren. She says:
Nowadays I spend as much time with my family as possible and help look after my grandchildren. I cherish every moment with them as 13 years ago my life changed forever.
I was having difficulty swallowing for some time and knew something wasn’t right so I went along to my GP. He sent me along for a scope test and everything was fine, but as I was having problems, the doctor decided to call me back in a year to do another one.
That year, I went for my scope and the registrar saw me and said everything looked fine and they would see me again in another year. But the following week I got a call from my GP on a Friday to say the hospital had been in touch and I had to call the ward on Monday.
He said it was probably nothing to worry about but I knew they wouldn’t want to see me that soon if everything was okay.
I couldn’t settle at home and my daughter called the ward right away and the registrar who had seen me answered the phone and said to come straight up.
He explained that they had spotted something in my biopsy and wanted to do further tests so I needed to be admitted on Monday. Of course, that was a long, difficult weekend for everyone as we all worried about what the tests would reveal.
I was in hospital for a week and had all sorts of horrible tests. Eventually I was told I had oesophageal cancer and there was a tumour in my oesophagus. We were all numb with shock, but a strength takes over. I just wanted to be well again and have the operation. It involves part of the stomach being taken away.
Not every patient will require this type of surgery but it was necessary for me, and I spent four weeks recovering afterwards in hospital. On Christmas morning, the consultant came around and said he had a present for me — I had the all clear and was now cancer-free. That was the best news ever and I was allowed go home to be with my family. That was a very special Christmas and we were all very thankful. I am lucky as I was diagnosed and treated early but I know the statistics and it could have been a very different story.
Now, I’m chairperson of the Oesophageal Patients’ Association (NI) which aims to help patients on their journey from diagnosis through treatment and to help to raise awareness of the signs and symptoms.
Having oesophageal cancer was life-changing for me as it’s a chronic condition. And I will have to live with the after-effects for the rest of my life. I have difficulty eating certain foods so I need to be careful that nothing gets stuck when I’m swallowing. Since I was first ill, I’ve been in hospital five times to have a procedure on my throat. At night I have to sleep on a raised bed with four pillows. But this is a small price to pay and the alternative is unthinkable. You just adapt your life and change.
The most important thing is to stay positive and I had great support from my family and friends. It was like role reversal in my house with the children looking after me and telling me what to do. I couldn’t have got through this without them and my husband.”