Tess: “The Charity empowers you to approach things differently – it’s so impactful”

Tess Churchill reveals how a stay at Harcombe House provided the support she needed following a sudden battle with cancer, which led to major surgery and time off work.

Noticing small changes in your body is hugely important when it comes to looking after your overall health and wellbeing, but for Tess Churchill, knowing when to trust her instincts proved a life-saver.

Tess, 51, works as Wellbeing Coordinator across both Surrey and East Sussex Fire and Rescue Services, so spends much of her time advising her colleagues about how the Charity could support them. And it’s something she’s had first-hand experience of.

Following a sudden and devastating cancer diagnosis in 2012, Tess was forced to spend time off work to undergo major surgery. She says a stay at Harcombe House, our centre in Devon, proved empowering for her moving forwards – and helped her gain the strength she needed at the time.

“I had started to feel more and more poorly over time and symptoms were getting more noticeable, particularly abdominal pain,” says Tess. “I had to keep persisting, going back and forth to the doctor, because I’d been put on antibiotics and all sorts. Eventually I ended up going and breaking down, because I knew something was seriously wrong. They gave me a CA125 blood test and the next thing I know I’m being fast-tracked for further tests.

“I now know ovarian cancer is often referred to as the silent killer, as symptoms are so often associated and overlooked for other more common health issues.

“I feel extremely lucky because I’m quite in tune with my body, even more so now, and I just knew I wasn’t right. I think so many people would perhaps put off seeking medical advice and keep persisting with their GP as I did, especially so in this current climate of Covid, but it’s so important to get checked out and to persist if you think something isn’t right.”

Tess was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, but doctors were unable to tell her how serious it was until they operated.

“It came as a complete shock though because I was quite a young age to get this form of cancer, I was 42 at the time,” she says. “I was found to have tumours on both my ovaries, the size of apples, which is why I’d started to get the pain.

“It meant I had to take sudden time off work for about a year. Physically, I had to recover from major surgery, and mentally it was challenging because sadly I hadn’t had the opportunity to try for children at that point. I still very much had hoped that I’d be able to have my own children and sadly that was taken away from me.

“For me, it was more about being so grateful for having the life-saving surgery I had had and being so lucky to be coming out the other side. I was thinking, ‘all’s good, all’s good, I’m recovering’, but it’s like an aftershock with me. It hits when I least expect it.”

With a long stretch of time off work ahead, and the long-term shock of what she’d been through beginning to sink in – all while facing a different future to what she’d envisaged – Tess reached out to the Charity, having heard for years how we’ve supported colleagues of hers.

She was offered a stay at Harcombe House, where she was able to work through a series of tailored exercises to help with her physical strength, while taking time out to speak to our expert teams about her struggles with her mental health.

“The support the Charity offered me at the time was absolutely outstanding because I was physically having to recover, and that helped no end going to Harcombe for the two weeks to stay, but also emotionally I was in need of some support,” she says.

“Just the experience of being down in Devon with other fire and rescue service colleagues, whether they were family members of people that had served or operational crew or support staff, it was amazing.

“And not only that but the staff, and how they made every individual feel, they empowered you to approach things in a different way, the whole experience was incredibly impactful on me.”

Realising she needed a change, Tess ended up moving job roles when she returned to work and took on the position of Wellbeing Coordinator – allowing her the chance to share how the Charity helps beneficiaries.

Sadly, however, just five years after recovering from ovarian cancer, Tess then received another blow – as she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“I was so happy after being discharged by my consultant after the five years mark since the ovarian cancer all clear, albeit it’s always a bit daunting not having the comfort blanket of your annual appointments, but I felt like it was the start of something new… and then literally within three months I went back to the doctor because I’d been aware of pain in my left breast,” she recalls.

“I did find a little lump the size of a pea, but that was after – I kept thinking I’d pulled a muscle before that. I thought, ‘no don’t sit on it Tess’, and they did a biopsy and found I had breast cancer.

“This time round I had to have the full wham of everything, surgery, chemo and radiotherapy, plus lots of tests, consultations and support relating to the BRCA gene. I didn’t actually, at that time, connect back up to the Charity because there was so much going on.”

Tess had lost her father around six months before the diagnosis (also to cancer), and she found herself retreating more this time round and trying to tackle everything on her own. She says, looking back now, she really wishes she’d reached out to the Charity again as she would have benefitted enormously if she had.

“As soon as I start talking about the Charity there’s even more of an injection of ‘please listen!'”

Tess Churchill

“A lot of the time I tell people it’s never too late to reach out for support and I’d very much say the Charity’s there for life, because a lot of people can struggle at differing times after any kind of trauma or life changing experience, even after they retire,” she says.

“It’s helpful now though, knowing I’ve seen the Charity’s support first-hand, to pass that on to people I’m speaking to in my role.

“I know, when I’m speaking about all the support available when I deliver wellbeing presentations or awareness sessions, as soon as I start talking about the Charity there’s even more of an injection of ‘please listen! Please know that this is there’.

“It’s so easy now, all you have to do is pick up the phone – and there’s even a great new app available so the Charity is at your fingertips right at the time when you need it.”

If you’re struggling with your physical or mental health, or you need support with your social wellbeing, we may be able to help you. Call our Support Line on 0800 389 8820, make an enquiry online or register for MyFFC and visit the ‘Access Support’ tab.

You can also join our ‘Share Your Story Group in MyFFC to chat to others who have received the Charity’s support, or enquire about sharing your own story.