Jill Bourdais - I Am Very Optimistic: Battling Through Debilitating Radiotherapy

Jill Bourdais, an American living in Paris, was in her eighties when she was diagnosed with anal cancer. While she was successfully treated in France, her doctor never talked to her about the origins of her cancer, nor explained that most anal cancers are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV). 

Here, she talks about her diagnosis, the impact of her radiotherapy and how the dedicated support of her husband helped her through the difficult times. She also explains how it was only when she reached out to an anal cancer charity in the USA that she finally got the information she needed about her disease. 

From a reporter to a psychotherapist 

I’m an American, born and raised in the US. I met a French guy while I was living in New York and we got together, and got married, quite a few decades ago. Most of my life since then has been in Paris.  

I started out as a reporter and journalist, but I switched direction in my 40s. I went back to school and studied psychology. I became a trained psychotherapist, and I’ve been working, both in the hospital and privately, ever since I got my degree in 1980. Now I’m retired but I still see a few patients. 

About 10 years ago, I got really interested in working with domestic violence, as a volunteer. I’ve been running a support group since 2011 for English-speaking victims of domestic violence. That means anyone who speaks English, potentially rather than French, and who is not really able to cope with the French administrative system and all that goes with it. 

People come to me via the internet from all over France, and I’d say at least 50% of them are not native English speakers but are from India, the Philippines or another country where English is the second language. 

A debilitating course of radiotherapy 

I started out thinking I just had haemorrhoids, as there was a certain amount of bleeding. That was the summer of 2020, and I was in the countryside. After a while, I realised that the bleeding was not really normal and there had to be more to it. As soon as we got back to Paris, I rushed to my gastroenterologist, by which time I was pretty sure there was something more going on. 

He gave me a colonoscopy right away, and told me there was anal cancer. He said he didn’t think it was that bad, but I should start chemotherapy and radiotherapy. 

About a month later, I did start. Two very light doses of chemotherapy but I had something like 25 sessions of radiotherapy, and that really did me in. It was really very debilitating, and I ended up in hospital for a week at the end of that treatment. I was pretty tired. I didn’t want to eat anything because everything I ate came out the other end. 

So when I got home, I just lay around and wasn’t good for much. 

Almost back to normal 

But I took every medication they prescribed and I soon started feeling better. I didn’t have to resume my normal life, as there was no normal life on account of the Covid-19 pandemic. So, I could stay at home and not feel I was missing out on much. 

Then I started to have pain. When I went back to the hospital for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and a positron emission tomography (PET) scan in April 2020, they found I had inflammation of the colon and treated me for that.  

Right now, I’m much better, and I feel almost normal. A lot of the symptoms I had have disappeared. I had a PET scan and MRI the other week and everything looks fine. There has still been some bleeding down there, so I am going to see the gastroenterologist again. 

I am very optimistic. It’s a relatively benign story. The drama for me was the radiotherapy, and that really wrecked me. I felt just terrible and I couldn’t do anything. I was just lying in bed all day, watching stuff on the internet. 

A welcome surprise 

The nice surprise of all of this was how my husband really stepped up to the plate, which I wasn’t expecting at all. I thought I’d be doing this on my own. But no, he was great. He really paid attention and helped me, and was very concerned. 

He came to the doctor appointments and everything with me, which was a big boost. I’m not a young person, and to think my partner was ready to really be there for me was very positive.  

I didn’t tell a lot of people what was wrong, only my very close friends and people I had to tell because I couldn’t handle some of my obligations, and I had to tell them why. But basically not many people around me know what’s being going on. 

I had no idea about HPV 

I reached out to the Anal Cancer Foundation because I saw there was very little information in France that I could access. They said that if I wanted a buddy, someone who’s been through the experience, they would put me in touch. 

They introduced me to a woman in New Mexico, who was great. She went through the whole anal cancer thing 10 years ago. She’s 10 years younger than I am so she was twenty years younger than I was when she was diagnosed.  

But it was only now that I found out about HPV. I had no idea what it was, and I didn’t think it was part of my history. But how would I know? 

The possibility that HPV could be connected to my cancer was never mentioned to me. I don’t know anything about the virus and it didn’t come up in conversation. My doctor never said anything. I had several blood tests during my ordeal and I just sent the results to the doctor and there was no follow-up of any kind. 

The French don’t get any training in what my businessman husband calls ‘soft skills’. They don’t have good people skills. They never get trained for that, and I suppose they’re not naturally inclined that way. 

It seems HPV is unknown to many people who get cancer. They should ask their physicians about it, even if it isn’t mentioned to them or in medical reports.