When Yelena Popova doubled up with excruciating abdominal pain in the middle of the night in August 2021, she knew something was seriously wrong. She immediately called an emergency ambulance to her home in Sandhurst, near London.
In the hospital, doctors quickly ran a battery of tests and scans which showed a large tumor in her colon. After they eventually found three additional tumors in her liver and nodules in her lungs, Popova was diagnosed with stage IV colorectal cancer.
As the 49-year-old sole parent searched the internet for survival rates, she was shocked to find less than 15% of people are still alive five years after being told they have the disease which is also known as bowel, colon or rectal cancer.
It was a devastating blow for Russian-born pharmaceutical marketing executive who was frightened she might not be around to bring up her daughter Maria, who was then just six.
“It was like being hit by a truck, it’s horrible, all of a sudden you realize that you’re not going to have the life you expected,” says Popova, who has lived in the UK since 2001.
Through her rocky cancer journey, she’s learned to be her own advocate and urges others to become experts about their disease and treatment pathways so they have the confidence to question doctors and seek second opinions.
It’s something she wishes she had done earlier. She knew from the offset she had to start curative treatment immediately to beat the odds, so she was devastated when her oncologist bluntly said she only had 18-24 months to live and told her to put her affairs in order.
“‘Bad luck lady’, he said at our first meeting,” she recalls. “He looked at me as if I was dead already, as if I were put in a box labelled ‘no hope, disregard.’”
He prescribed aggressive palliative chemotherapy, which is used to reduce the symptoms of cancer, rather than the goal of curing it. Fortunately, the treatment did begin to shrink her tumors, but it was just the start of a brutal rollercoaster ride.
She has since endured over 20 chemotherapy sessions and surgeries that have cost her a section of colon, her ovaries and gallbladder. Surgeons have carefully redesigned her bladder, cut out liver tumors and removed a cancerous growth that put her leg at risk of amputation.
“You get ready for surgery but it’s only when you wake up and you see yourself for the first time you understand what it all means,” says Popova. “I had this huge scar almost from my neck to the very bottom with metal staples all the way down, that was terrifying. I looked at myself and cried.”
Throughout her treatment, she has researched everything she can about the cancer, its causes and treatments. She thinks delayed and potentially botched surgeries as well as insufficient chemotherapy sessions may have complicated her illness and led to painful tumors in her pelvis.
She knows that finding an oncologist with a kinder bedside manner, who better understood her determination to live for her daughter and helped put a more personalized holistic treatment plan in place would have invariably made the tortuous journey a bit easier.
At times, medical complications have made her worry her life would be shorter than even her oncologist’s gloomy forecasts, and even struggled with dark waves of depression.
Walking for hours each day in a nearby forest, indulging in her newfound passion for ice skating, working and travelling with Maria have all helped pull her back on track.
Stubbornly independent, she’s learned to call on friends for help as she tries to juggle her treatment with daily chores and making time for tasks such as compiling family photo albums for her daughter.
“I do not fight my cancer, I live with it. There is no cure, the name of the game is to slow down its progression and extend my time, quality time,” she says. “Terminal cancer can be a life-ending, or life-changing experience, the choice is entirely yours so choose wisely.”
Two years after her diagnosis, she’s already exceeded her oncologist’s initial prognosis. She is now trying to live for each day and keep life as normal as possible for Maria while managing the pain caused by some of the tumors in her lungs, pelvis and liver.
She’s hopeful last-line immunotherapy drugs will start to work, and she is waiting to get another opinion and to see new oncologists to find out if radiotherapy and other treatments can buy her some more time as she prepares Maria for the future.
“Nobody knows how much time we have, so what’s really important is what you do with your time,” says Popova, who is raising money for the Macmillan Cancer Support charity.
“Even if you live to 90,” she continues, “you’ll still want another day, another night, another sunset. Be precious about every minute.”