Catherine's bowel cancer story (diagnosed age 48, NSW)

I found out I had stage 3 colon cancer in August, 2019. 

I was 48 with two kids and a husband who lived and worked in Denmark.

We had all moved to Copenhagen at first, but all the time I was there, I kept having the disquieting thought that I was dying. At the time, I thought that the social alienation was making me unhinged.

In hindsight, I believe my subconscious knew something was up.  Either way, we decided not to stay, and in March 2019 the children and I moved back to NSW, leaving my husband to continue working there until he found a new job.  

When we came back, we lived with my parents at first, as the kids got settled into new schools and activities. One night we all had a bad curry and the following day we all had diarrhoea.  But mine didn’t stop.

It was two months later when I went to a GP for the first time.  I had so much to say, that I forgot to mention the blood and mucus I had seen on my stools. My new GP was fantastic: she took the diarrhoea very seriously.  She kept referring me for tests.  When I remembered to mention the blood, I was given the FOBT test right away. 

Very soon after that, as we were purchasing a house, a nurse rang and told me the FOBT test had returned a positive result and that I needed to have a colonoscopy.  Fortunately, she arranged for me to have one within a few weeks, and while my husband was in the country on his annual holidays.

When I woke up from the anesthetic after the colonoscopy, I felt suspiciously clear-headed.  And my husband was in the recovery room, which wasn’t what was meant to happen. When the surgeon came in, I asked him if he had gotten rid of any polyps, and he said, “No”.  That was when I knew that there was bad news.  It turned out that my colonoscopy had only lasted ten minutes or so, because 21 centimeters in they found a five-centimeter tumor blocking the way, which prevented them from being able to go any further with the scope. 

Two weeks after the colonoscopy, my husband (who had to return to Denmark for work) flew back to Australia for my anterior resection surgery.  It went really well, and I left hospital after four days.  I felt like Superwoman. 

Unfortunately, pathology tests found cancer cells in two of the thirty lymph nodes they removed, so I have now been referred to oncology.  I still feel like Superwoman, but with butterflies. 

The day I learnt that the cancer was also in the lymph nodes, we went to a nursery of Australian orchids.  I bought six small, immature and expensive plants.  It felt like a weird reaction to the news.  I think I wanted something that showed my faith that I’d still be around when the plants become old enough and big enough to flower.  I imagine there is no correct way to respond to news like this. 

My husband will be home for some but not all of the chemo.  I have been honest with my kids, who are ten and thirteen, about what is happening, although I have not discussed the prognosis with my ten-year-old.  I have told their schools what is going on.   They say the kids are handling it very well.  I think we all are.   

The amount of support I have received from family and friends has been amazing.  Various charities have been fantastic with their help and advice.  One will help me with cleaning while my husband’s away, and Bowel Cancer Australia has provided wonderful advice and support on the phone, including from a dietician, which was very important after the operation as I had really bad diarrhoea. 

For me, all the phone calls from friends have been tremendously important.  It has been an interesting exercise in relying on the help of others, and feeling part of a very supportive community.

I wish I had paid better attention to the symptoms I had been experiencing for years, including abdominal pain, and bloating, but I simply didn’t.  My advice to others, particularly women, is to pay attention when your body or your mind is telling you there’s a problem. Bodies and minds know what they’re on about, and they do try to communicate!

Also, look out for that really great GP who takes you more seriously than you take yourself. I would also add, as part of that, find a GP who takes women seriously.   I’ve been very lucky with the GP I have now. Without her I doubt I would have diagnosed so quickly.  I am told the cancer is probably ten years old, and I regret all the opportunities I missed to take my health more seriously, or a find a GP to do it for me.

Another thing that I’ve learned is that the more help you accept, the more affirming and positive the experience with cancer can be. So, reach out to people and let them know what’s going on. Some people won’t feel able to help, and that’s fine; but you’ll be surprised at how many friends and supporters you will find, sometimes where you least expect them.  And please, wish me luck with the chemo.

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