My biggest revelation about cancer? Chemo is really, really boring 

Sarah with Rob Rinder, one of the celebrity guests on The Chemo Chatshow 
Sarah with Rob Rinder, one of the celebrity guests on her Chemo Chatshow  Credit: Sarah Mills /Sarah Mills 

Chemo is boring. This is one thing I learnt last year when I was diagnosed with Stage 3 Bowel Cancer.

Don’t get me wrong - chemo miraculous and it probably saved my life. But it’s also very boring.

At the start of 2018 I didn’t know chemotherapy was boring because I didn’t know I had cancer. I was working as a TV producer, enjoying being a single girl about town, and decorating the flat I’d just moved into in London (I’d always lived with friends but it was about time I take a grown-up step and go it alone for a bit).

At the same time I was also occasionally passing blood from my...back end.  I’d seen doctors about this a few years prior but they’d dismissed it as probably a haemorrhoid. Then, when it suddenly started to get worse towards the end of 2017 I called 111 and was told to head to A and E.  There, I’d had blood tests that had showed anaemia and was advised that I’d be invited back for a colonoscopy.

I assumed everything would be OK - cancer happens to other people.  And although when I googled Bowel Cancer the symptoms were all quite similar to mine - unexplained weight loss, fatigue - at 34 I was not in the right age demographic for it.

Eventually in February I had my Colonoscopy.

During the examination, I watched everything that was happening on a screen.  Modern medicine is incredible: we have skin grafts, bionic hands and….you can watch the inside of your own guts being explored live as a doctor moves a scope inside you.  To my untrained eye it all looked fine. However, when they were finished, the registrar told me solemnly he had seen something “angry-looking up there”.

I asked, “Is it cancer”.  He refused to say, “No”.

In the days that followed, while I waited for fuller scans to confirm everything - I swung from blind optimism that they were mistaken, to thinking about planning my funeral. I didn’t want to have to tell my parents for fear of worrying them, but eventually a friend who is a Mum encouraged me to ring them.  She told me they would prefer to be worried and involved in the process than not to know at all. And I think she was right.

Fast forward 1 month and I had a treatment plan in place.  Surgery followed by chemotherapy.

I had seen the chief colorectal surgeon at UCLH, and he had explained where the tumour was and that it was operable.  My Cancer was Stage 3, and they had found it in some lymph nodes. Chemotherapy was essential to curb any micrometastatic spread.

The tumour removal took two abdominal surgeries and a stoma being put in.  This is an opening in the front of the belly, where the end of your intestines emerge into a colostomy bag.  It would allow the lower part of my bowel, where the tumour had been, to heal. The idea of having such an invasive surgery was upsetting.  I’m still young, and I work in an image-conscious industry - this surgery would change my body drastically. But it was a vast improvement on having cancer.

Next, I began 6 months of chemotherapy.  I would do three hours on the drip in the Hospital, every two weeks.

Stepping into a chemotherapy ward for the first time is quite overwhelming - but at the same time oddly cheering.  It is a setting geared towards making the best attempt possible to cure you, populated by staff all working to that end.  I was keen to get underway.

After the first two sessions of this, I realised I needed something to occupy my mind.  Plus I wasn’t working (I eventually took a year off), so had no outlet for my creative impulses.

So I had a slightly bonkers idea: host a chat show while doing chemo!

After all, in 2019, we are all ‘storytellers’, whether we make vlogs, podcasts, Instagram stories or Snaps.  And I thought it was important I shared what I was going through as it was such an unexpected situation: if I had been too embarrassed to tell someone about the blood in my poo, my cancer could potentially have progressed too much to save me.  I didn’t want the next person to literally die of embarrassment.

And so it was that on my third session of chemo, I invited a friend and comedian, Eshaan Akbar to keep me company.  Working in TV, I’ve met and become close to celebrities and comedians from across the board, many of whom were kind enough to come to sit with me at the chemo ward for the sessions that followed.  At first, it was just to keep me entertained, but eventually I decided it was too much fun not to share, so I put on YouTube.

ITV’s Judge Rinder, Taskmaster’s Phil Wang, Mock the Week’s Dara O’Briain and Amelia Womack, Deputy Leader of the Green Party all rocked up on different Fridays to chew the fat with me.  I recorded it all on my little smart phone. It’s funny what you find out about people when you get them into a hospital. One of my friends told me about the time she had been stabbed as a teenager.  Another one told me about how he’d had testicular contortion on the playing field at school.

I’m really grateful to all of these people for coming to keep me company during chemotherapy.  They stopped it being boring. And their chat was so entertaining I decided to publish the videos on YouTube.  What started as a video diary to keep me sane through my cancer treatment, is now The Chemo Chat Show.  

I’ve now completed chemotherapy and life is very different.  Whereas before I was a bit of a party animal as well as a workaholic, I’ve had to calm down on both fronts.  And even when I’m tempted to work or play a bit too hard, I always stop short. Before, I took my health for granted.  Now, I’m still occasionally struck by that cold, mortal fear that my body will let me down from inside. I need to do everything I can to help it keep that eventuality at bay.