Jewish Health

Harriet - Interview 1

Age at interview: 55
Age at diagnosis: 20

Brief outline: Harriet was originally diagnosed with ovarian cancer aged 20 and though she has had some long periods of remission, four recurrences later she remains both vigilant and positive.

Background: Harriet is a management consultant and is married. Ethnic background/nationality' Jewish/Russian/Polish

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Harriet was originally diagnosed with ovarian cancer aged 20 after experiencing a range of different symptoms. She had surgery to remove her left ovary and a low dose of chemo to try to preserve her fertility. About fifteen months later a second tumour was diagnosed on her right side and she had a radical hysterectomy. This was a big decision for Harriet particularly because, at that time, fertility technology had not been developed. The surgery was effective and Harriet had 23 years without any reoccurrence.
During this period of time Harriet describes living life at “double time” because she felt there was a constant “Sword of Damocles” hanging over her. She had regular examinations for fifteen years and then was discharged as a patient and had yearly appointments with her GP. After 22 years, Harriet developed some symptoms that worried her; she had to go to the toilet frequently and developed mild dysphasia. She also stopped being able to sleep on her stomach comfortably. While her GP was not concerned about these symptoms, a second GP in the practice gave Harriet an internal examination and referred her for an ultrasound as soon as possible. The scan showed a large tumour in her groin which Harriet describes as “huge and messy and terrible”. The surgery to remove the tumour was lengthy and groundbreaking and left Harriet in intensive care for several days, unable to care for herself. Harriet describes noticing a ‘cancer smell’ when she has cancer which is not offensive, but different.
Shortly after the surgery Harriet developed lymphoedema and was unable to move her leg properly which she found distressing. She attended a lymphoedema clinic where she learned how to manage it and keep it under control and began chemo six weeks after the surgery. Losing her hair was also distressing although she got a selection of wigs which she named after her nieces.
Harriet spent a year doing all the things she wanted to do, like visit the Grand Canyon, and then started to take the years for granted again. In 2006 she began to notice small signs that worried her, for example, the ‘cancer smell’ returned. The cancer had returned, in its very early stages and Harriet had more surgery which debalked rather than removed the tumour. Nine months later the tumour began to grow again and the only option left to Harriet was chemotherapy which she is currently trying. As she says “It’s been a hell of a journey and I don’t know that I’ll ever have a normal life again”.
Harriet thinks laughter is a “tremendous cure” and she thinks that the love and closeness of her husband and family are the most important things in her life. She attributes the closeness of her sisters and brothers and the importance of family to her Jewish culture. Her siblings have supported her throughout her cancer treatment, staying in the hospital with her and helping her to find humour in the experience. Harriet’s husband has also been supportive though Harriet feels it is very hard for partners and there should be more support for the person who may be left behind. She has also valued both Rabbinic support and the support of her Jewish community throughout her experiences. Harriet describes herself as a tremendous fighter with a lot of spirit and while she doesn’t know how effective research about prayer and its positive effect on survival rates is, she says she likes it so she will listen to it.


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