Christine's bowel cancer story (diagnosed age 59, NSW)

I was 59 years old and in fairly good health when I was diagnosed with cancer of the left descending colon stage 3B.

I was a dressmaker and theatrical costume maker working casually from home, teaching dressmaking at evening college and volunteering for several not-for-profit organisations.

After 4 pregnancies, I experienced chronic haemorrhoids which caused some occasional discomfort but had no visible bleeding.

My stomach was sensitive to spicy and rich foods, and I suffered from gastric reflux and had Helicobacter Pylori (pre-ulcer).

Because I don’t drive, I rely on public transport to get around town and walk a little but have never played organised sport or done set exercises.

I ate a fairly good diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables, probably liked sweets a bit too much and carried a bit too much weight.

I also suffered from a diagnosed anxiety disorder and clinical depression and was taking prescribed medication for 2 year prior to my cancer diagnosis.

I had some niggling kidney stone pain and felt a little unwell.

Thinking I might have a relapse of Helicobacter, I visited my GP for a referral to my gastric specialist.

I was able to get a fairly quick appointment and after talking to me, the doctor suggested I undergo a colonoscopy since I was about to turn 60.

Happy birthday to me, I thought.

Thinking I had already seen the doctor and been told what they found, the nurse said to me in recovery after the procedure, “That’s not such a good result is it?”

I forgot about the comment, until the doctor asked me to make an urgent appointment to see her in 2 days in her rooms.

It was then that I realised there was a problem.

When my husband and I arrived that day, she welcomed us then asked us to sit down.

She announced she had found cancer and asked if we’d like to see the photos.

My husband had to ask what the prognosis was.

I think I was in shock.

She was very frank and re-assured me that it looked like it was early stage, but still arranged an urgent appointment for me with a surgeon for the next week to discuss treatment options.

He suggested surgery, and depending on the staging, possible chemotherapy, but he also believed from the photos they had found the cancer early.

He offered keyhole surgery, with the option to progress to open surgery if necessary.

It was quite a whirlwind, and there was no time to think about the consequences.

We were frank with our family, but didn’t really know what to expect as we had no cancer experience.

Surgery was in a private hospital which progressed to open surgery as the procedure was more involved and the cancer more extensive than the photos suggested.

During the surgery the doctor also removed some diverticulosis along with 18 cm of descending colon.

As it turned out, the tumour tested Stage 3B, and had penetrated the bowel wall.

Two lymph nodes from 14 taken revealed cancer, but no other organs were involved.

Both of the specialists were very surprised by this result and referred me to an oncologist for further treatment.

My doctor suggested 6 months chemotherapy.

We didn’t discuss any alternative treatments and I trusted the medical professional to do what they thought was best.

I was given a Folfox 6 Modified regime once a fortnight. I began my treatment in November 2013 feeling tired and sore, having had 4 anaesthetics in 5 weeks due to also having my left hand carpal tunnel released, between the insertion of a portacath in my chest and starting chemotherapy.

In general I did well with my treatment.

The private clinic was a 15 minute taxi trip from home and if I felt well enough, so I went home by bus and train.

I settled into the routine quickly.

Monday mid-morning would see me at the clinic for 4 hours, having the strongest drug (Oxaliplatin) administered under observation.

Then I would go home with the other drugs in the pump, which was stored in a bag on my waist and administered through the port over 46 hours.

I returned on the Wednesday morning to have it disconnected.

The clinic was very modern, on the 2nd floor of the building had large windows and a pleasant outlook.

I became friends with the chemo nurse who treated me.

I used to feel quite cold so would take a large fabric wrap with me, gifted to me by my daughter in-law who had been through breast cancer chemo.

Several of the listed side effects soon showed up – my hands and feet became very sensitive to cold in the few days after each chemo, so I had to wear gloves to take anything from the fridge and use warm water instead of cold or get painful “shocks” down my nerves.
I suffered from some sores inside the lips and cheeks, but they responded to warm salty water.

My hair thinned in patches but it didn’t fall out.

I had it cut very short so it was easier to look after.

Friends and acquaintances said I looked too healthy to have cancer.

The biggest issue for me was the extreme tiredness.

Despite sleeping fairly well, I struggled to get out of bed some days for more than a few hours and napped during the day.

I had to employ a house cleaner once a fortnight which was wonderful.

I still have her now.

My husband offered to cook our evening meals, and he still does this 3 or 4 days per week.

Towards the end of my treatment I started to suffer from severe tingling and numbness in my hands and feet.

I knew that Oxaliplatin can cause nerve damage or peripheral neuropathy.

I may have opted for another treatment if I had realised it would affect me so badly, but was advised that this was the best treatment for a full recovery.

My hands have recovered by about 80 percent, but my feet still have altered sensation and feel like I’m walking on a gritty beach.

My legs are sensitive up to the mid-calf and tingle at night.

I get cramps sometimes as well.

I had my last 6 monthly check recently and all tests are still clear for a recurrence of the cancer.

My specialist doesn’t want to see me for 12 months now, unless I have any further issues.

I’m 3 years clear and counting.

My advice if you experience long term “stomach issues” is to seek medical advice, and if you are not happy seek a second opinion.

Know your “normal” health and act promptly if you suspect anything is not right.

I didn’t use the free government Bowel Screening Kit test.

My GP said the cancer may not have shown up at 55 anyway, but we’ll never know.

He also said I was just unlucky to develop bowel cancer, as there was no family history and I was fairly active.

However I believe a bit more daily physical activity and less sitting doing craft, computer work and reading may have helped me.
If you are unlucky to be diagnosed yourself, take up every offer of help and be kind to yourself.
Let your family and friends visit and share time with them, take time to “smell the roses” and plan some outings and breaks when you feel up to it.

If you need to stay in bed, do it and don’t feel guilty about it.

I’ve never been a religious person – I’m a fatalist and believe if you are meant to be well you will be, just get on with the treatment and deal with it as best you can.

My specialist reminded me at my last visit that I’m still a cancer patient even though I’ve been clear for 3 years now.

I need to be monitored for the rest of my (hopefully long) life and I’m looking forward to enjoying my 6 grandchildren, seeing them grow up and taking another overseas trip with my husband in the next few years.


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