A mum who spent two weeks planning her own funeral after a terminal bowel cancer diagnosis is celebrating a “double miracle” after improved results led to a second chance at life followed by the all-clear.
Swapping her old career in manufacturing to become a life coach and help fellow cancer sufferers, since her initial, devastating diagnosis in January 2017, Tasha Thor-Straten, 49, has been on a rollercoaster journey that has seen her turn to Dame Deborah James for advice.
One minute, she was setting up home in Rochford, Essex, with her now fiancé, Russ Parker, 47, a mortgage broker, and their blended family of five children and the next she was staring death in the face.
Tasha, who shares custody of her children Amy, 17, and Theo, 13, with their dad, while Russ has the same arrangement with the mother of his three children, said: “I can’t describe the feeling when someone tells you that you have a terminal illness.
“I was only 44, with young kids and a new relationship and suddenly the rug was being pulled from under my feet.
“I feel incredibly lucky to still be here today, which is why I now work as a life coach helping other cancer patients to understand things like how their diet can improve their health during treatment.”
Moving in with Russ just three months before her diagnosis, Tasha found herself funeral planning when she should have been homemaking.
She said: “I’d been single for three years and wasn’t particularly interested in a relationship when my friend convinced me to join a dating app.
“By chance, I matched with Russ in April 2016 and we agreed to meet the next day for coffee which turned into lunch.”
She added: “It was a while before we introduced our children to each other, but the timing felt right and by the end of the year, we’d found a house big enough for our blended family and moved in together.”
With her year filled with new experiences, Tasha admits she ignored warning signs that something was wrong with her bowel.
She said: “I was ignoring the blood in my stools. I didn’t think anything of it and I assumed it was just down to things like work or parenting stress.”
She added: “I went to my GP surgery twice and chickened out on saying anything because I was scared about the process and what might happen next.
“When I look back on that time, there were other symptoms, such as pain in my stomach when exercising and lower back pain, but I put this down to over-exertion.
“It wasn’t until Christmas 2016 that the blood loss was becoming too much and I reluctantly went to the doctor who referred me for a colonoscopy.”
Just two weeks after her colonoscopy, on January 27, 2017, Tasha was brought in for her results.
She said: “I’d been sent for further tests, CT scans and an MRI, so I knew something was going on but I didn’t expect it to be as bad as it was.
“The doctor told me that I had terminal bowel cancer, it had spread to my lungs and I was offered palliative care.”
She added: “It was utterly shocking and devastating.
“It never occurred to me that my symptoms could be bowel cancer. I was fit, healthy and took care of my diet and there was no history of it in my family.
“To find out that not only was it cancer, but that I was going to die from it was almost too much to bear.”
Returning to the home where she should still have been unpacking and decorating, instead she started to plan her funeral.
She said: “I just couldn’t believe this was happening to me. I was constantly in floods of tears and had some very emotional conversations with the kids.”
Things took an unexpected and very welcome turn for the better when Tasha returned to hospital for further results in February 2017.
She said: “On further inspection, while I do have lung nodules, the doctors discovered they are not cancerous. Just like that, I was given a window of hope.”
Told she had stage 3 cancer, because of her new results, she was eligible for invasive and potentially lifesaving surgery.
She said: “There was no time like the present.”
She added: “I went in for my operation on February 28. They cut out the part of my bowel where the cancer was, which was about a 35mm tumour and then they had to put my bowel back together again.
“When they were discussing the process with me, the surgeons warned that there was a high chance that they would need to fit a stoma bag during the operation, so I had to mentally prepare myself for it.
“But when I woke up afterwards, I discovered that they had not ended up needing to do so, which I was very relieved about.”
The surgery was a success and, following a few weeks of recovery, Tasha started chemotherapy.
She said: “I didn’t cope well with the first couple of rounds of chemotherapy, so my doctors extended the length of time in between to give my body more time to recover.
“Still, my side effects were severe, including extreme tiredness, sadness, nerve pain and a negative reaction to sunlight and the cold.”
She added: “By August 2017, I was making progress and I was told I had the option to either continue with chemo or stop treatment.
“Studies had shown that patients who have this treatment after the surgery I’ve had, have experienced the same results whether they’ve had four or eight rounds of chemo, so I made the decision to stop after four.”
It was during this treatment that she contacted Dame Deborah James, who became famous because of her Bowelbabe blog.
She said: “I saw on social media that she was struggling to sleep due to treatment. I was going through the same thing, so I messaged her.
“It was really nice to talk to someone who understood exactly what I was going through. She offered me some nuggets of advice and it was a real comfort.”
In August 2017, Tasha was officially given the all-clear from cancer.
She said: “It felt like the day I got my life back and I wanted to be able to help other people who were going through cancer diagnoses.”
So, in 2020, Tasha retrained to become a life coach.
She said: “I now run a company called Let’s Make Time, which focuses on helping people manage life-changing illnesses like cancer.”
She added: “Although I considered myself to be fit and healthy at the time of my diagnosis, my diet has been tweaked since then. I can no longer digest red meat and processed foods. I also steer clear of beans and regularly visit a homeopath and look for ways to improve my gut health.
“This is something I help other people with too.
“When I first started my business, lockdown had just hit, so I was having to do sessions over video calls. Now it’s lovely to meet my clients and help them with face-to-face sessions.”
She added: “I use my skills to help others who are living with cancer to thrive.
“My life has continued to blossom, as Russ and I got engaged in March 2019 and while we have no wedding plans yet, we’re looking forward to our future together.
“As someone who received the worst diagnosis imaginable, I want to help others along the route as they navigate their journeys.”
For more information, visit: www.letsmaketime.co.uk