Updated April 2014
In the summer of 2000, after two years of planning, Linda Shepherd and her husband, Andrew, arrived in France. They had bought a lovely old house and were excited about their new life ahead of them.
Almost immediately, though, their dreams were dealt a cruel blow. Three months after arriving, a routine doctor’s appointment for a HRT prescription ended with Linda being diagnosed with breast cancer. The news was all the more shocking because it was so unexpected. ‘The doctor had sent me for a mammogram because I’d been on HRT for three years and he wanted to be on the safe side,’ says Linda. ‘There was no inkling of a problem so when I went to have the mammogram I went on my own. Afterwards I planned to go to the garden centre.’
Linda did make it to the garden centre but she didn’t buy any plants. ‘For two hours I wandered about in a shell-shocked haze,’ she says. The mammogram had swiftly been followed by an echograph for a further examination of Linda’s breasts, which resulted in the diagnosis of cancer. ‘The specialist pointed out an area of shadow in my left breast and told me it was cancer,’ says Linda. ‘He told me to tell my doctor that I had to get rid of it immediately.’
The emotional trauma of the diagnosis was intense, made even more overwhelming by the fact that Linda, just 48 then, had left a stressful job as a secondary school teacher for a happier life with Andrew in France. ‘All your plans just turn to dust,’ she says. ‘I remember going for a walk with the dogs one day and sobbing my heart out thinking, ‘I don’t want to die.’
The next few weeks were like ‘being on a rollercoaster.’ The initial diagnosis made in October was quickly followed by a lumpectomy to remove the diseased tissue. ‘Before the operation they told me that if the biopsy showed that it was definitely cancer, they would remove some of the lymph nodes under my arm to check how far it had spread,’ says Linda. ‘As soon as I came round I could feel the tightness under my armpit, and I knew I had cancer.’
Thankfully the disease had not spread to the lymphatic system, but a mastectomy was needed. This was carried out a week after the lumpectomy. Radiotherapy followed in the New Year. While Linda coped well with the initial treatment, even the mastectomy, the radiotherapy was a different story. ‘The diagnosis and initial treatment had been a positive experience,’ she says. ‘Everything had been done so professionally and so quickly. But the radiotherapy was incredibly gruelling and the aftermath of it was emotionally horrific.’
The radiotherapy consisted of several short doses of radiation, five days a week for five weeks. Linda’s travelling time to the hospital was an hour each way. ‘Half way through the first week I started to experience pain like I had never experienced before,’ she says. Centred round her ribcage, the sheer physical force of the pain triggered a psychological trauma that manifested itself in panic attacks that left her unable to move. In the end, she elected to spend the last three weeks of her treatment in the psychiatric section of the hospital.
It was now, while she was struggling to cope, that Linda really needed to talk to someone who understood what she was going through – and in English. As she discovered, while it was difficult expressing her emotions in English, trying to do so in a second language when her vocabulary was limited was almost impossible. ‘Also the fear makes it very hard to understand what is being said to you in your second language, even if you are moderately competent,’ she continues. ‘Words simply don’t register with you.‘
Linda contacted Breast Cancer Care in the UK and was able to find the support she needed, but her experience made her wonder how others in France coped both emotionally and practically. ‘While some of the doctors spoke English, all my psychological support was in French,’ says Linda. ‘I was okay because I had studied the language for two years in night-classes but I began to ask myself what it must be like for someone who could barely speak the language. How would they feel? It is already a stressful time, but not to be able to fully understand what is going on would make the situation even worse.’
Three years later, with her cancer in remission, Linda set about changing things. Her research amongst the medical professionals treating her showed that, understandably, there was no support for English-speaking people affected by cancer in France – so, with their full support, in 2003 she and a group of like-minded people who lived in the Charente started ‘Cancer Support in the Poitou-Charentes’. In 2006 the association changed its name to ‘Cancer Support France’ to reflect the fact that today the registered charity helps people from all over the country. Well-respected amongst the French medical profession, CSF is also supported by Macmillan in the UK, who regularly come to France to train CSF volunteers.
Today there are 15 CSF associations across France, each one affiliated to CSF National. Although every CSF association shares the same aims and has similar statutes, each is organised slightly different according to the needs of its local members, its trained volunteers and the way of life in that particular part of France.
The CSF associations support everyone touched by cancer, not only the patient, and many of the clients are family members or carers. All volunteers who have direct contact with clients must follow a training programme which is identical in every association. They must also attend continuing training to ensure that the skills acquired are constantly practised. As a result, the support provided through CSF anywhere in France is of the same high standard. For those who do not feel able to ask for support by telephone, there is a CSF Forum which has lots of useful information and documents, some of which have been translated into English. These can also be found on the CSF National website which has details of every affiliated CSF association.
One of CSF’s main roles is to give people information on the disease and its treatment. ‘Cancer robs patients and their families of control,’ says Linda, pictured left. ‘If you can give them an element of control back, by helping them find the information they need or formulate the questions they need to ask their specialists, they can begin to walk along this very dark path.’
The charity tries to provide bi-lingual speakers who can attend consultations with patients. Most importantly it also provides someone to talk to, whether face to face, on the phone or by email. It is this latter form of help that Frances Rosemont has needed.
Frances, age 64, was diagnosed with breast cancer in January 2004. She and her husband David, 61, had been married for three years and were planning to move to Brittany for his retirement when she was told her cancer was incurable but controllable. ‘It was horrendous,’ says Frances. ‘We dealt with it because we’re quite good at dealing with things but it was a blow to our imaginings of life’s future. I was very angry. There was a lot of ‘why me?’ over and over again. But you have keep chucking that thought out and get on with life. We came to France because we wanted to make the most of what time we have left, and don’t regret it one bit. Quite the reverse.’
The day after she arrived Frances saw a GP, and three days after that she had started chemotherapy. Since then she has had 30 sessions of the treatment but is now awaiting medication that is currently undergoing trials in America. ‘I first called CSF when I was at a very low point,’ she says. ‘I’ve spoken to Linda now for the past two years. Because she has had cancer herself she knows what you are going through and how that makes you feel.
‘I call when I am in a panic and I always feel a lot calmer afterwards. She tells me to hang on in there and you need people to say that to you to keep you going. And you can tell her things that you would not want to tell your friends or family. We have a strong rapport and that is very important.’ This is despite the fact that Frances and Linda have never met in person.
CSF also provides support for the family of people affected by cancer. ‘They are the forgotten ones,’ says Linda. Frances husband, David, first contacted the charity without telling his wife. ‘I am not naturally someone who begs for counselling,’ says David. ‘I’m one of those ‘true Brits’ who has been taught not to show emotion, but when someone you love has cancer they, and you, are in incessant emotional turmoil. You need help to come to terms with it. For me, it was about straightening my head out, to know what was going on and understand it, so I could help Frances too.’
Being able to talk to someone at CSF also gives both David and Frances a chance to have a more normal life. ‘With cancer it is easy for it to become the number one subject which is not helpful,’ says David. ‘It’s good to be able to talk to someone else about it, and then for the two of us to live our daily life.’
GETTING IN CONTACT WITH CSF
Telephone Help-line: 1810 240 200. This is an answerphone and someone will be in touch within 24 hours.
E-mail Help-line: firstname.lastname@example.org Again, someone will respond within 24 hours.
CSF website: www.cancersupportfrance.org
CSF Forum: www.csf-forum.org
CAN YOU HELP?
Cancer Support France is run entirely by volunteers and is always looking to welcome new faces. For an informal chat and further details contact your nearest CSF association or, if there isn’t one near you, CSF National.
UPDATE APRIL 2014:
A long-awaited need has been filled, the Tarn now has its own cancer support group as part of CSF Sud de France. They are there to offer advice and support to anyone in the Anglophone community who is touched by cancer, whether it is as a patient, friend, family or bereaved. You do not have to be British to benefit, all English speaking people are welcome.
If you are interested and would like more information, need help or advice or would like to join in any capacity, please look at the web sites below. My main object at the moment is to spread the word in the Tarn, we especially need members in the south and east of the department. If you think you can help by distributing leaflets to your local doctor’s surgery, hospital, pharmacy or anywhere else appropriate, or can help in any way please contact Helene, tel: 0563349401
CSF Sud de France local site:
the CSF National site:
For further information about CSF Sud de France please contact Penelope:
Our Help Line is : 0468690137