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Kharlia’s story

By July 22, 2022August 5th, 2022No Comments

When I was diagnosed with bowel cancer three years ago in 2019, I was going through a different health process altogether. I weighed about 145 kilograms and had decided to change my life.

I had signed up for private health insurance, waited a year, then went ahead with gastric bypass surgery.

It was radical shift for me. The abdominal surgery went really well, and it was the start of my new, much healthier life. I was 32 years old.

Now I’m cancer free, when people who knew the bigger me ask my weight loss secret, I tell them: ’Cancer!’ (insert proud hair flick emoji-if there was one, ha ha).

Every dollar you give will support people like Kharlia. Click here to donate

Gastric bypass surgery started the process, and a grueling bowel cancer treatment journey really locked it in!

Laughs aside, back to my cancer journey. A couple of months after the surgery, I felt this weird pain in my side.

I thought it was to do with the surgery, it was quite normal to have some pain as your body adjusts. I took antibiotics, but no matter what they did, the pain wasn’t going away.

A week before Christmas 2019, the pain had gone down but it was still there.

My doctor suggested a colonoscopy to check whether one of the less common side effects had in fact happened to me. He was about to go away for three months, but said he could squeeze me in tomorrow.

I didn’t want the pain over Christmas so I agreed to do it tomorrow, and then if I needed to get on medication to help sort out the condition I could do it soon.

I went in for the colonoscopy that was meant to be nothing, and waking up and my mum was there. I was happy to see her, but she should have been at work and she’s a GP so it’s hard for her to get away. I remember thinking, ‘oh wait, Mum’s here, that’s can’t be a good thing…’

She said, ‘it’s not good’…and I don’t even remember if she said the word. She might have, but it feels a bit of a blur when I recall it. But it was cancer and they had to do surgery.

I was upset and in shock but it was just like, ‘okay, nobody was expecting that!’

It was a big old mess in there!

Because I had health insurance and because I was covered for my gastric bypass surgery, they sent me straight to hospital and I had surgery the next day. I’m incredibly lucky, because a lot of people would have to wait. And it turned out that not only was it cancer but it had ruptured, and that had caused a full-on obstruction of my bowel. If I hadn’t gone into surgery that day, I would have ended up in Emergency at hospital fairly soon, because it was a full obstruction and that’s extremely painful and dangerous.

My body had grown all this stuff around it to try to protect itself, it was a big old mess in there! So I had gastric surgery.

Every dollar you give will support people like Kharlia. Click here to donate

It’s not easy to talk about bowel cancer…it’s not a pretty cancer – if such a thing exists! But I think it’s important to get the truth out there. Maybe it will help someone going through cancer to read this.

They were confident they got it all out, but they wanted me to do chemotherapy as a precaution so I went into six months of chemo straight away.

I had 12 treatments, and I had to get a port-a-cath put in, which meant surgery. I didn’t have the vein they usually put it in, so it went into my jugular. I walked around with the chemo drugs around my neck.

I wore it in a bum bag, and did that for six months in two-week blocks.

Cancer came back again! So began epic treatment journey #2

After six months I’d finished chemo and just had to come back for check-ups every six months, but at the first check-up colonoscopy, I woke up and Mum was there again.

She said, ‘well, it’s not good, it looks like it’s come back’.

I have to tell you, it was a big shock and I did not want to go through chemo again. I didn’t think I would cope.

The surgeon said this recurrence had happened to a patient once in his career, it was rare but the person did survive.

Nobody was sure what treatment, if any, would work on me. I remember the surgeon saying, ‘look, this is acting aggressively so I’m going to treat it aggressively’. They were going to throw everything at it.

It was terrifying but ultimately I thought if I go ahead and it works, it will make the decision easier for someone else down the road, knowing the treatment had worked for me.So they went in for surgery again, and this time instead of keyhole surgery they opened me from sternum to lady bits. I have the biggest scar. He said, ‘I just want to see it with my own eyes and get everything out that I think is a threat.’

Sorry ‘fam, I’m ruining Christmas again

The weirdest thing, this was happening just before Christmas 2020. So I was ruining Christmas again! I was determined to get out of hospital before Christmas, and I achieved that both years which was good.

I went straight into chemotherapy again, and I had some different side effects, then I did a month of radio therapy which was every day. After that I did immunotherapy for a few months.

I had been pretty lucky with my first session of chemo. My hair thinned out but I didn’t lose it in the first round. But going into the second round my body couldn’t handle it and my hair fell out.

All the side effects came back – peripheral neuropathy, my hair fell out, and I got ingrown toenails. I still can’t wear enclosed shoes (glamorous, I know). All of my toes and some of my fingers got these sores, and I got so sick and sore and nauseas, it was really hard.

Family helped keep me going

My Mum was an absolute rock through the whole thing. When I was going through chemotherapy, we came up with a challenge for every chemo session. We called them Cancer Quests. For every session I set myself a challenge and got a reward. It wasn’t hard, it was just good to have something that wasn’t about chemotherapy to focus on.

My sister Tiffany was a lifesaver because she got wigs for me, she’s a burlesque performer and had these amazing wigs and outfits. She’s known as Tugboat Tiffany.

I wore this fabulous pink wig, and my sister actually shaved her head with me too, along with a really famous drag queen, Be Be Gun. I was so annoyed because their hair grew back in a couple of weeks.

I joined the Bloomhill community

I first found out about Bloomhill after my second lot of treatment. The Buderim-based clinic where I was being treated got a psychologist who specialised in cancer treatments. I saw her and she told me about Bloomhill.

I had no idea, but they had a Bowel Care Nurse and my psychologist suggested I go in and speak to her. She sent my details to Kirsty at Bloomhill, so I went down and met with her and she was lovely.

She showed me around and suggested the services Bloomhill offers that I could benefit from. I did massage with Audrey, and the reflexology helps with that. I saw an exercise physiologist as well.

Art therapy

What really drew me in at Bloomhill is the Art Therapy Group.

I was finding it really hard, I was isolated and felt like there was nobody to connect to. The sessions were for younger people and they

were in the evenings which suited me because I’m not a morning person!

It was so good to talk to people going through similar things, because family and friends support me and love me, but they have their own stuff going on. And they will never truly understand why you are the way you are – why I’m so tired, and why I’m so triggered by little things, or why I can’t drive to see them. I was really searching for that and I think art therapy has been the greatest help to me.

Every dollar you give will support people like Kharlia. Click here to donate

There’s something about expressing yourself through art. It’s hard to vocalise how you’re feeling. People don’t really understand that. When I put it on a piece of paper or in a painting or through smashing a bowl and piecing it back together, it’s a physical therapy. It’s not just talking about it. It’s getting the feelings out there in the world and working through them that way. I communicate that better that way so having that as an option has really worked for me.

The therapist Clair is amazing. She has this natural ability to know what you need, when you need it. The other people that come along, I really get along with them.

How Bloomhill helped

I really struggled with the dependence on my family that having cancer created for me. I live with my mum on her property and she provides support on so many levels to me. I was –and sometimes still am – worried about being a burden.

Coming to Bloomhill for treatments takes some pressure of my beautiful Mum who has done so much for me. It helps me to have some support I organised independently.

While Mum she was too busy with her own work helping patients to be able to be supported by Bloomhill herself, it was a comfort knowing that services do extend to her.

Reflexology and massage helped with peripheral neuropathy I’ve had since doing chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

The massage therapists at Bloomhill are so kind, calm and knowledgeable. The treatments are a good length, I don’t feel like they are cut short, and I really get to relax and listen to my body.

Every dollar you give will support people like Kharlia. Click here to donate

Fatigue is a big barrier to me recovering fully and living a ‘normal’ life again. I just don’t have the stamina for an eight-hour work day, and doing anything before 10am is a ridiculous idea for my body.

I’ve heard meditation can help a lot with fatigue, and diet change too – these are both things Bloomhill has supports around, and I’m hoping afternoon or evening sessions are available soon so I can partake in those.

Mental health is an ongoing concern as well, and it’s not just about cancer, it’s a mix of things. Art therapy has been so therapeutic for me.

Do things for YOU

I want people to know that they’re not alone and that it’s really important to do things for yourself, find ways of not focusing on the hardest parts.

For me, sharing my experience on social media and not keeping it to myself was great.

I’m now in the clear, with no cancer detectable in my body. I have regular check-ups but have started living my life again. I’m studying a Bachelor of Graphic Design and continue to visit Bloomhill every week for the Art Therapy Group.

I’m also part of the Lived Experience Group where we give feedback on Bloomhill’s care services and support each other as survivors.

I have lots of side effects, so getting massage support with that at Bloomhill has been really good for me. The mental health effects of this cancer experience have been really significant for me, and going back to a ‘normal’ life is not a fast process. Fatigue is a real issue, it’s hard to slot back into routines like a normal work day, for example. Working out all these things is hard, and I’m told it’s not just me who finds this.

Thanks for listening! I hope reading my story has helped.

Please give yourself love and find support that works for you, because surviving post-treatment is a huge challenge too, even when treatment has been successful like it was with me the second time round.

By Kharlia Beck, June 2022.

It costs on average $1454 for Bloomhill to support a client for one year. That’s roughly $125 each month. Please give to our Greatest Need Fund and help Bloomhill continue our vitally important services. Click here to donate