I was diagnosed with stage 3 bowel cancer two years ago at the age of 23. I had been experiencing a range of symptoms for about five years, including rectal bleeding, mucous in my stools, diarrhoea, stomach pain and cramps to changes in my bowel habits.
Coincidentally, my mother was also having these problems, so we were both seeing a doctor to try to discover their cause.
Because of the specific set of symptoms I was experiencing at the time, I was initially misdiagnosed with ulcerative colitis, while my mother was diagnosed with bowel cancer.
By 2008/2009, my symptoms were a lot worse, with a lot of bleeding and a great deal of pain. I was finally admitted to hospital and given various tests including a colonoscopy, which found a tumour in my large colon.
I was diagnosed with bowel cancer in February 2009 and my mother was then told she only had months to live. My mother passed away two months later aged 54.
Things began to happen very quickly. Within four weeks of my diagnosis I was in Sydney having surgery – a total colectomy and a temporary ileostomy. Since then I’ve had two more operations to be given a second ileostomy and then a J pouch in my small intestine. I had the ileostomies for about 16 months in total, but luckily they were reversed and I now rely solely on the J pouch which is still difficult at times to deal with. I also had chemotherapy (Xeloda) for nearly a whole year, which made me feel nauseous and made my hands and feet swell and take on a reddish appearance. I would become easily flushed and feel overwhelmingly ill at times.
I am finally free of cancer, but I continue to have my cancer markers checked every three months and to see my specialist twice a year for scans and a general check-up.
My diagnosis wasn’t easy to cope with, I had seen my mother decline rapidly and suffer immensely from her battle with bowel cancer which she lost so soon after. And while we think my cancer was caught early enough, the idea that it could have killed me was always in the back of my mind, especially considering that I was told the tumour size indicated that it had been growing over the five year period of which I was receiving the symptoms that were misdiagnosed. Antidepressants have really helped me cope with everything I’ve been through. I’ve also taken part in a clinical trial run by the University of New South Wales to investigate the link between bowel cancer and genes.
If there is one lesson I have learned along the way, it is that bowel cancer has no age, race or gender barrier. It can happen to anyone. Doctors need to be more aware about treating patients presenting key symptoms of bowel cancer of all ages with the seriousness and concern they deserve. I have just established a bowel cancer support group in NSW’s Southern Highlands region because I think it would really help raise awareness about the disease. I knew my symptoms weren’t normal but let myself be persuaded by doctors that I was far too young to be a candidate for bowel cancer. It’s only because my symptoms carried on that I kept pursuing an answer.
Doctors need to realise, too, that bowel cancer can happen to anyone no matter the age.