Barbara's bowel cancer story (diagnosed age 60, NSW)

I had a bowel cancer test in November 2006 which came back all clear, therefore when symptoms started occurring in February 2007 I ignored them, at the age of 57, blamed my new job, the change of lunch hours etc. Initially the symptoms were changes in my bowel habits, rectal bleeding with froth and bubbles. Eventually the symptoms started to get serious, with some stomach pain, a heaviness in the back passage and generally feeling uncomfortable. In September 2007 I couldn’t ignore any of this any longer.

I visited my GP who made the first available appointment to see a surgeon. Within 3 weeks I saw a surgeon who arranged a colonoscopy within 11 days. Three days later I was told the tumour they had found in my lower back passage was malignant. Three days later I was having another appointment with my surgeon to discuss my options for surgery and further treatment. I also met with two oncologists who gave me information on radiation and chemotherapy.

The cancer was T3, so I underwent surgery, having an Anterior Resection, not requiring a stoma, but I did require one week in intense radiation therapy before my surgery to help shrink the tumour, which I cannot say caused me any great deal of problem.

On leaving hospital after the surgery, I was told to eat my usual diet; unfortunately my usual diet was high in fibre and low carbohydrates and negligible amounts of red meat for the previous 15 years. Therefore I spent approximately the next 8 weeks sitting on the loo. My bottom was bleeding. The pain was so bad I’d be sitting on the loo with tears running down my face and saying over and over ‘at least I’m here to feel the pain’. It definitely gave a whole new meaning to that song ‘Ring of Fire’.

I didn’t receive any dietary advice. I tried every area that I could - dieticians, calling the Cancer Council etc, but no relief from my problem. Eventually it was suggested to me that even though I didn’t have a bag, maybe the Stoma Nurse could help. Amazing, the nurse gave me a free government handout booklet ‘Improving Bowel Function After Surgery for Bowel Cancer’. Practical advice, it was everything I was going through. I’ve since found out that how you react depends on what part of your bowel was involved.

When I was first told I had bowel cancer, I took it calmly, although I found it hard to believe, thought I did everything ‘right’ but I was determined to stay positive. I had my surgery on the Wednesday and was walking my dog Friday week, feeling good and I was determined to be strong. I started having doubts four to five weeks after the surgery, thinking that eating healthy didn’t stop me from getting cancer so why bother. I started eating too much bread, even though it made me feel uncomfortable, it also meant I wasn’t on the loo as often. My diet was wrong, six weeks after the surgery, I spent New Years Eve in the local hospital with a blockage. I’ve had five children, and I could honestly say the blockage was more painful.

One month later in February 2008 I had another blockage, but not as bad, I was able to clear it myself. These two experiences made me realise eating healthy regardless is the better option and if I wasn’t healthy in the first place, I wouldn’t have recovered so fast.

The support in which I received was mainly from my husband, I couldn’t find any other support. I tried many different areas, the only support groups seemed to be mainly for Breast Cancer. This situation made me frustrated and angry and very alone. My husband told anybody who would listen about my situation and by doing this he found a woman who had had bowel cancer and was prepared to meet with me. It was great to sit and talk about things that only fellow bowel cancer patients could discuss and actually laugh about it – e.g. having to know the whereabouts of all toilets for all occasions and wishing we had shares in Sorbent loo paper. Looking back, this meeting with a survivor of 15 years, made me realise that at the end of the day, it was really up to me on how I would live the rest of my life.

I have always walked every day and also attended other activities like yoga and Tai Chi, but now I feel that exercise - especially my yoga - has gone to a higher level and is contributing to my very positive outlook on life. I am a 4 year survivor and to celebrate that milestone and my 60th birthday, I spent a week in Bali on a Yoga retreat. It was fantastic and most importantly I ate all on offer without any problems whatsoever.

I feel I have been given a second chance at life and I am trying my best not to waste it!

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