In February last year, she underwent a radical hysterectomy which, along with removal of her uterus, included her fallopian tubes, cervix, part of her vagina and a large selection of pelvic lymph nodes. Turns out her lymph nodes were clean. Such radical surgery meant that she did not need chemotherapy or radiotherapy. She is now cancer free, with check-ups every three months, and only has a one in 10 chance of it coming back. The examination and surgery saved his life.
But it’s the lifelong effects of her treatment and the different perspective she gained when she became ‘a number’, as she puts it, that prompted her to make a new BBC documentary, Making Sense of Cancer with Hannah Fry. It’s filled with footage that Fry shot on her phone throughout her cancer journey, and it’s what makes the film so human and what qualifies her to question survival rates and cancer-related statistics. effective treatments.
‘There are hours and hours of me crying. I also kept a long diary,” she says. She is a very private person and initially “the diary and the images were so that I could have a record of how I felt in those moments”.
It was her friend, who runs a television company, who convinced her to make a documentary: ‘He said: “This is not just a recording of someone with cancer. It’s also the story of someone who has spent his entire life thinking in numbers and trying to rationalize things.”
This is what makes the documentary unique. As Fry explains, she made the documentary because her blind fear of cancer was at odds with her life as a mathematician, analyzing numbers and data, unencumbered by emotion. In the documentary, he ends by saying, “The chance we think we have of dying is the only number that matters…but we’re not having honest conversations about the benefits and costs of treatment, and only when we do can people find out what what matters most to them and what is right for them.’
It’s what the documentary’s makers call their exploration of ‘almost medical taboo’, to ask the question, ‘Are there times when a life-changing treatment might not be the right thing to do?’
In the end, Fry mostly opted for radical surgery, she says, because once she was referred to Guy’s Hospital, she was presented with only two options: The first was removal of just the cervix, leaving the uterus and lymph nodes intact. This allowed the possibility of having the third child that she and her husband wanted, but at the risk of the cancer spreading and also miscarrying her future baby due to the operation on her cervix. There were also those enlarged lymph nodes that seemed to threaten her life. The second option was to delete everything, to be sure.
‘I didn’t push,’ he says of the phone conversation in which he had to decide. “I think partly because it was the pandemic and it was a phone call and I think if you were brought up in Britain, well I’m trained to be grateful and not want to waste [doctors’] weather. I really didn’t want to ask any more questions. It was “we have a space for you in three weeks to be on the table. It is a good slot. You want it?”‘
The fact that her lymph nodes were clear at the end meant that she probably could have gotten by without a hysterectomy. There were two consequences of this treatment: she lost the opportunity to have another child (‘leaving that has been part of my acceptance of cancer’) and she developed lymphedema, a lifelong condition caused by the removal of lymph nodes. . She wasn’t ready for this. Today her legs are swollen from undrained fluid and she will have to wear pressure garments, tights or shorts, for the rest of her life. How is it possible that she didn’t know about this? Was it because the pandemic changed cancer care in general? Why didn’t she ask? Or did she not tell herself?
“There was a time last year where I was just recovering from everything and emotionally coming back to life, and the lymphedema was a real blow, a real blow. I felt very angry about it,” she says.
“If I went back in time, I don’t know if I would have made a different decision, but I really would have liked to feel like I had more agency, or really understood what the calculus of risk was, and that my values and my level of risk were taken into account. account. I don’t always think that’s the case [with cancer care].
“I was so scared and so scared for my daughters that I think I would have just taken whatever risk was necessary. I would have paid any price.