Accepting my terminal diagnosis on my own terms

For the 150th anniversary of Dr Marie Curie’s birth, we’re celebrating the women who embody her legacy – both through their connections to the charity that Dr Curie inspired, and their commitment to facing their own challenges.

Paola Domizio is a seasoned medical professional, a mother, and a woman living with terminal cancer. She shares her insights on living with a disease she understands inside and out, and how her cancer diagnosis led her to make one the toughest decisions of her life.

Scientist, medical professor and mother: Paola Domizio. Illustration by Lizzy Stewart.

Both doctor and patient

“There’s no question that the mind has a lot to do with the way you react to cancer, and the way you cope with it.  Growing up as a scientist and as a medical doctor, I’ve had the rigour of science drummed into me.

I’m a hospital pathologist, and the major part of my work was in diagnosis. Everybody who is a patient here at the Marie Curie Hospice, Hampstead will have had some sort of biopsy performed, and that is examined under the microscope by a pathologist like me.

When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008, I spent a year off work for treatment. My final disease came on very, very rapidly in 2015. I was getting stomach pains but I just couldn’t bear to consider that it had come back. I finally got it checked out, and all of the tests showed wide-spread, metastatic disease.”

An unexpected life-saver

“I became very sick over the next three months, and was using a wheelchair by the time I left hospital. I’d gone from being someone who ran 10K races every week to being barely able to walk. They told me I was unlikely to reach Christmas.

Around that time I was referred to the Marie Curie Hospice, Hampstead in order to benefit from the facilities there, such as the gym. It almost became life-saver for me in a way. I began working with the physiotherapist to strengthen my muscles. Combined with a new course of chemotherapy, I gradually started to put weight back on and to recover physically.”

Making a huge decision

“Since then, I’ve also taken part in a trial studying the benefits of a therapy focusing on commitment and acceptance. At the time I was extremely torn about whether to go back to work.

Having achieved the title of professor during my career, I felt that I’d been working to certain goals all my life, and that I would’ve failed in some way if I didn’t go back to work. But with the therapist’s help I was able to accept that actually, I would never quite achieve the things I wanted to because of what had happened.

I decided to close that chapter of my life and open a new chapter of being a full-time mum to my two boys, Sasha and Aron.

Paola with her sons, Sasha and Aron.

We spent five weeks in Italy this summer, staying with family and spending time on the beach. I would never have been able to do such a thing had I been working. They’re both keen on football and we’ll get the football out at every opportunity. We play as much as we can, but obviously their energy far exceeds mine!

I’ve had a reprieve with these extra two years. I never thought I would have them and I’m really grateful, but I know that it could end at any moment. So I’m not regretting my decision to prioritise my boys, and to do as much as I can for them.”

Treating people as a whole

“My experience with this therapy and others I’ve taken part in has turned on its head everything I’ve ever been taught about how you should approach therapies for patients. The services offered here at the hospice address the whole person rather than just bits of them.

I personally believe that metastatic cancer needs to be approached in the same way as chronic disease. The cancer I have is stable at the moment but it’s still there. It’s being kept in check rather like it’s in prison, but it’s possible that it will break out again and go rampant.

This kind of disease brings its own issues and problems. Palliative care and the sort of environment that the Marie Curie hospices provide are the only places it’s recognised as such, and treated with the understanding and expertise necessary.”

With your help, Marie Curie can continue to be there to support people living with a terminal illness. Help keep us in the communities where we’re urgently needed and support people like Paola by donating today.