In February last year, she underwent a radical hysterectomy, which in addition to the removal of her uterus, also removed her fallopian tubes, her cervix, part of her vagina and a large number of lymph nodes in the pelvis. Her lymph nodes, it turned out, were clean. Because of such a radical operation, she did not need chemotherapy or radiotherapy. She is now cancer free, with quarterly checkups, and has only a one in ten chance of it coming back. Screening and surgery saved her 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 led her to create a new BBC documentary, Making Sense of Cancer with Hannah Fry. It’s full of footage that Fry filmed on her phone during her cancer journey, which is what makes the film so humane and what qualifies her to question survival rates and the statistics regarding effective treatments.
“There are hours and hours when I cry. I also wrote a long diary,” she says. She is a very private person and initially ‘the diary and images were so I could capture how I felt in those moments’.
It was her boyfriend, who runs a TV company, who convinced her to make a documentary: “He said, ‘This isn’t just footage of someone with cancer. It’s also the story of someone who has spent his life thinking about numbers and trying to rationalize things.”’
That 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, she ends by saying, “The chance we think we have of dying is the only number that matters… what they care about most and what’s good for them.”
It’s what the documentary makers call her exploration of “almost a medical taboo,” to ask the question, “Are there times when 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 to remove just her cervix, leaving her uterus and lymph nodes intact. This opened up the possibility of the third child she and her husband wanted, but at the risk of the cancer spreading and also miscarrying her future baby due to the surgery on her cervix. There were also those enlarged lymph nodes that seemed to threaten her life. The second option was to delete everything, just to be safe.
“I didn’t insist,” she says of the phone call in which she had to decide. “I think partly because it was the pandemic and it was a phone call and I think if you grew up in Britain, well, I’ve been trained to be grateful and not want to waste [doctors’] time. I really didn’t want to ask any more questions. It was, “We have a place for you to come to the table in three weeks. It’s a good bet. Do you want it?”
The fact that her lymph nodes eventually cleared meant she probably got away without a hysterectomy. This treatment had two consequences: she lost the chance of having another child – “letting go of that has been part of my acceptance of cancer” – and she developed lymphedema, a lifelong condition caused by the removal of the lymph nodes. She was not prepared for this. Today her legs swell from undrained fluid and she will have to wear pressure clothes, tights or shorts for the rest of her life. How could she not know this? Was it because the pandemic changed cancer care in general? Because she didn’t ask? Or was it not told?
“Last year there was a time when I was just recovering from everything and emotionally reviving myself, and the lymphedema was a real blow, a real blow. I felt really angry about it,” she says.
“If I had gone back in time I don’t know if I would have made a different decision, but I would have loved to have felt that I had more freedom of choice, or that I really understood what risk assessment was and that it was taken into account. with my values and my risk level. I don’t always think that’s the case [with cancer care]†
“I was so scared and so scared of my girls, I think I just took every risk I had to. I would have paid any price.’