29
Sep
2014

Chelsea's bowel cancer story (diagnosed age 36, WA)

It was very frightening to realise I might die and leave my two small children (aged one and three at diagnosis) without their mum after being diagnosed with stage three bowel cancer at the age of 36 in April 2012.
 
I noticed occasional rectal bleeding and after about six weeks I went to my GP. She didn't think it was urgent but recommended a colonoscopy. After a six week wait and a substantial increase in rectal bleeding, the colonoscopy showed a tumour in my mid to low rectum, plus two polyps in my bowel.

Over the next few days I had a CT scan, followed by blood tests and an appointment with a surgeon.
 
Initially I was given six weeks of radiation therapy to the pelvis combined with chemotherapy. In September 2012, I had an ultra-low anterior resection with a temporary ileostomy. The surgeon removed most of my rectum except for approximately 3cm near my anus. I was told it was locally advanced and that some lymph nodes had been affected. Following the surgery I had three and a half months of chemotherapy (Fluorouracil (5-FU) and Capecitabine (Xeloda).
 
The side effects have been varied. After the radiation therapy I had diarrhea for approximately five weeks, as well as sore and broken skin to the pelvic area. I then experienced menopause caused by the radiation therapy (seems to be permanent) and vaginal stenosis (shrinking of the vagina) - hopefully this is not permanent (still having therapy for this).

The chemotherapy caused fatigue, hand-foot syndrome, diarrhea, and a general feeling of being unwell. Six months after the surgery I also still experience post-surgery pain.
 
Due to the diarrhea and the ileostomy, my diet has been much less healthy than prior to my diagnosis. I had to significantly reduce my fibre intake. The WA Stoma Therapy Association gave me a really good pamphlet on balancing food, fluids and electrolytes for people with an ileostomy.
 
So far I have had a very good response to treatment so things now look very good for me and the kids.
 
The main challenge for me has been coping with being a fulltime mum and undergoing treatment. I've had to have a huge amount of help. For nine of the 10 months to date, I have not been able look after my kids for a whole day by myself due to pain and other side effects.

Having the kids has been both a huge blessing and also a major difficulty. It has helped in crisis times, when you just need to be able to get on with life. It has helped because you cannot help but laugh when tickling your children. But it has been so hard when you are not feeling well and need to continually respond to the needs of a small child. My patience with whether the kids get the right colour cup has not been good!
 
I have been attending counseling with a specialist cancer counsellor, which has been enormously helpful. I like the Anton Chekov quote "any idiot can face a crisis - its day to day living that wears you out"
 
One of my interests is whether people find 'positive thinking' and positive stories helpful and inspirational. So many cancer organisations and newsletters focus on these, however while sometimes I like to read them, mostly I end up feeling inadequate.

Sure, I'm a survivor, but I'm a bit grumpy about it and on those days when those positive stories hit my inbox, I press delete really fast! I think there is a lot of pressure on cancer patients to think and be positive.

A lot of the time I find myself pretending that I do feel super positive because other people seem to need that. I think it would help some cancer patients if we could educate about empathy and challenge the difficult (sometimes shameful) emotions as well as the inspirational people.
Banner Bowel Cancer Australia Helpline
Support Bowel Cancer Australia
Bowel Cancer Australia Bowel Cancer App