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Angela Rake, cancer survivor, seasoned veteran of the operating theatre, Pilates teacher and co-founder of Zing Wellness, talks about her major and even life-saving surgeries and the resultant scars.

A scar is no big deal, right, it heals and that’s that?  That is what I always thought.  You can read all about scar tissue massage in this blog but this is my personal scar story sharing with you the relationship I have with my scars and how some of the darkest periods of my life have made me who I am today and may have ultimately have saved my life.

I grew up with 4 pretty major scars on the outside of my legs and hips from hip surgery I had as a baby as a result of congenital hip disorder (I was born with dislocated hips and a twisted femur bone) and I now have 7 major scars and 6 from keyhole surgery.  This is my story.

I was born with dislocated hips and twisted femur bone.  As a baby I spent weeks in traction, spent 18 months in a  plaster cast from my chest to my feet and then had reconstructive surgery on both hips.  My dad is adamant I was still a happy go lucky baby as I really didn’t know any different.  I would race around on my skate board in my body cast getting from a to b getting into trouble just like any other mobile baby.

The scars didn’t bother me and I as I grew up I often used to have fun making up more exciting stories about how I might have got them.  I remember being on a dive boat in Thailand in my early twenties and I told a group of Americans that they were scars from shark bites when I was attacked by a school of sharks when scuba-diving.  That seems incredibly rude when I think about it now but I got tired of explaining something that seemed as normal as the colour of my hair.  I never felt the need to ask them why they were overweight so why pry about my scars?

When my hip pain became severe in my late teens it transpired that my hips had become displaced and weren’t sitting in the hip sockets properly.  Again, I went through reconstructive surgery on both of my hips a year and a half apart where they essentially broke my femur bone just below the ball and greater trochanter and reset and pinned my hips back into place.  On the left side they even attempted to try a new technique where they used parts of my bone to build a shelf to give my hip socket more depth. 

These operations were huge.  With the left side it involved 3 whole weeks in traction in hospital and with both I spent 6 months on crutches turning my university social life on its head.  I was forced to rethink my plans and do my 3 year degree over 4 years giving me the time to recover.  I so badly wanted to be pain free and be able to walk without fear of my leg giving way and because there was quite a wait on the NHS the surgeries were most yearned for and I never ever considered the resulting scars beyond giving them a bit of a massage  with bio-oil in the early recovery period.

Unfortunately, these surgeries didn’t provide me with the pain relief I hoped for and what relief they did give me lasted only a few years. I was told that the hip sockets were fast deteriorating, I had osteoarthritis, labral tears and I would need both hips replaced soom.  The decision of when was very much left up to me.  I was told only I would know when my quality of life had been impacted that much that surgery was the only option. 

The pressure of having to make this decision myself was huge. Rather than cracking on with the surgery like I should have done I decided to go travelling around the world for a year which in hindsight was a fun but slightly stupid decision. 

I really think the thought of the surgery and my perception of life post hip replacement was really skewed.   My fear and lack of knowledge meant I waited FAR FAR too long.  I should have focused on going into surgery when I was fit and strong rather than running myself into the ground.  Carrying a back pack around the world can’t have helped and my lifestyle involved far too much socialising (yes drinking, yes smoking and yes late nights)  and not enough self care. 

The constant chronic pain and pain medication had a huge impact on my quality of life.  On my return from my travels I threw myself into my career in a fast paced environment managing IT and business change projects with a very much work hard and play hard attitude.   With hindsight I now know I was distracting myself from the severe chronic pain which was starting to affect my mental health and my immunity.    I would regularly be laid up in bed with tonsillitis, flu and viruses and was suffering with chronic fatigue.

When I did eventually have my hips replaced in 2009 and 2016 my  joints were pretty much bone on bone.  In fact, after this first hip replacement on my left hip my surgeon said it was one of the most worn out hips he had ever seen.  The lateral shelf they had previously built on my left hip caused massive complications with the hip replacement.  I didn’t realise that a hip replacement isn’t as straight forward when the surgeon is working with hips that have already been through reconstructive surgery and in my case they had been through two rounds already. 

I was left with sharp shooting pains down my leg.  It took a year and a half of investigations and two further surgeries in 2011 to clean up the joint and realise that my rectus femoris (one of my quadriceps) had become detached from my pelvis and attached to the remnants of my old lateral shelf.   It was pinned back in its correct place attached to my pelvis.    All these operations involved opening me in the same place as my childhood scars, extending them and also some new scars. 

I was always fascinated by how proud my Consultant was by the quality of the scar, whereas I was much more concerned about whether my pain was gone.  After the complications with my left hip replacement I remember saying to my Consultant to just not worry about the scar and to just cut me as much he needed to in order to find the cause of my pain.  Pain relief was really all that mattered to me.

I met Emma Holly from Restore Therapy in between my first and second hip replacements in 2015, she had just started her Scar Therapy work and was looking for bodies to work on.  As a Pilates teacher I was intrigued by anything that could help me especially with all the restricted range of movement I had around my rectus femoris.  I had a few treatments and the results were subtle but noticeable as I had reached a plateau in terms of my strength through my quadriceps.

Roll forward a few years to 2018, a few months after the birth of my third child I was diagnosed with bowel cancer.  I had been completely pain free since my second hip replacement in 2016 and had made significant lifestyles changes to improve my health including leaving my job, retraining to be a Pilates teacher and moving to Harpenden.  I felt I should be more ‘well in myself’ than I was.  Three pregnancies and motherhood meant I was repeatedly dismissed by my GP.  I tried all sorts of alternative therapies and made big changes to my lifestyle and diet. 

Eventually by the time I was going to the toilet 30 times a day and had blood in my stool a GP eventually took notice.  My stool tests showed I had campylobacter and I was treated for a bacterial infection for 3 weeks.  It was only at the end of these 3 weeks when I was incredibly unwell that I took the plunge and asked my GP to refer me to a private gastroenterologist. 

Within a week I was booked in for a colonoscopy which identified a cancerous tumour and weeks later I was booked in for a bowel resection.  I was told it would be keyhole surgery and pretty straight forward as they thought the tumour was a T2 or T3.  However, when they went in they discovered the tumour was much bigger (a T4), it had grown outside of my sigmoid colon and attached to my rectum.  It was about the size of my first. 

I had three quarters of my sigmoid colon removed and two thirds of my rectum resulting in a scar from the top of my pubic mound to my belly button.  When I came to in the recovery room, I was screaming with pain which they referred to as ‘colic’, but I have never experienced pain like it and the days that followed were much the same.  I don’t know if they never got my pain medication quite right as I was still breastfeeding but it was unbearable.  Passing my back log of stool was a hundred times worse than birthing a baby (bad example as I quite enjoyed childbirth but you get the idea). 

My recovery was and, in many ways, still is an emotional rollercoaster.  I often wonder how much your subconscious hears what is being said in the operating theatre and how much of the ‘oh dear, this is far worse than we expected’ I heard.  The pain post cancer surgery was beyond any other surgery I have ever had and the emotional fallout was huge.  Even when out of hospital my scar hurt and I felt a constant pull to the right with every step I took.   This post is not meant to directly be an advert for ScarWork but seriously, within two sessions with Emma I felt 80% better both physically in reducing that internal pull I was feeling but also I felt a subtle emotional release.  I continued to have a couple more treatment with one of her trainees, Vanessa Barker.  I volunteered at a couple of her training days and then my husband, a massage therapist, trained in ScarWork, so I can now have scar tissue massage treatments whenever I like (or when the children allow!).

I have just been through my 18 month post cancer checks.  My colonoscopy was completely clear and my CT scan and blood results were positive.   I really believe that although I wouldn’t wish what I have been through on anyone, it has brought me huge positives.  It led me to my Pilates career I absolutely love.  It has led me on a journey of wellness, self-care and being kinder to myself.  It has also encouraged me to stay clear of anything that causes me stress or anxiety and try to live for the day ahead of me.  I try to find joy in the simple things.  I also think my experiences have made me a better Pilates teacher and a better wellness coach.  I am good at listening, understanding and empathising.  A lot of people want to work with me because I understand chronic pain, I understand cancer both whilst going through treatment and also when you are living between scans and expected to carry on as normal and I also get motherhood and the daily pressures of juggling work, health concerns and a young family.