Dave's bowel cancer story (diagnosed at 41, VIC)

Life was great. I was fit and active, looking forward to the Melbourne Cup long weekend when to make things even better it was made official that I had been given my dream job - perfect!

I didn’t play cricket that weekend as I hadn’t trained because I didn’t feel up to it, and after the usual washouts and byes at the start of the season I couldn’t really get too motivated. Every time I trained I struggled but that’s what happens when you hit 41 years of age and you try to keep up with teenagers and fit tradies.

A few people at work mentioned I was looking a bit pale, even yellow but I laughed it off and got on with the prospect of landing the promotion. Eventually I went to the clinic I have been attending since birth for an asthma script and maybe drop that I was getting comments about looking a bit lame.

I could only have an appointment with a new doctor at the clinic, not my regular doctor, being late on the Monday night before the ‘race that stops the nation’. During the appointment the doctor too thought I was looking a dodgy shade of yellow and ordered a blood test. Not concerned, we headed off home for fish’n’chips before the kids headed out to try their luck trick or treating the neighbourhood for Halloween.

The shock though by night’s end was more for me than the neighbours.

The blood results quickly came back with concerns about my extremely low HB levels so I was put into hospital for blood and iron transfusions. After a week admission watching the Spring Racing Carnival and the First Test against South Africa I was finally given a leave pass after a colonoscopy - which showed not much apart from a rather healthy looking pink polyp that I was given a photo of to keep as a souvenir.

Home feeling refreshed after a week in a hospital bed watching the cricket things took a turn for the worse. Instead of returning to work I was called back to the hospital and informed, in a quiet little room with lame plastic flowers in the middle of the table, that the polyp they had found was indeed bowel cancer. Well, didn’t plan for that!

I was lucky to be then referred to our local surgeon who performed a bowel resection a few weeks later. The preceding appointments, scans, meetings and pre-visits to the hospital made even more surreal when each medical professional or receptionist commented how young and fit I looked.

I appreciated their kind words but felt like screaming back “that’s lovely but cut this bloody thing out of me!”.

I started doing crossword puzzles to distract myself from the issue and to fill in time when sitting in waiting rooms. They were my escape but I haven’t done one since …. I couldn’t think of doing anything worse.

The surgery all went to plan, and I was lucky to not have the need for a bag which had been presented as a possibility.

I behaved myself and after nearly a week in Intensive Care I was moved out to the ward and then back home.

I keep things rather slow for a few weeks, not that you could move quickly after that type of surgery.

My kids learnt quickly not to try to cheer me up with funny youtube clips as laughing and belly post-surgery don’t mix.

My family was great in falling back into routine which was important to my mental recovery.

My wife dropped me off at the cricket club at times for a bit of respite for both of us, and after a few weeks I was able to drive again which allowed for a bit more normality to come back into the household.

I took advantage of being off work to take the kids the school and do things I didn’t normally get to do when I was working. I deliberately made steps to ‘take time to smell the roses’.

The follow-up with the surgeon was quietly hanging over my head as I awaited news to whether I was going to need chemo.

The appointment was blur as he and my wife, a nurse, discussed scans and other medico-talk until I interrupted politely to ask for the answer to the big question to whether chemo was the next step. Again, another good outcome - no chemo.

A plan and schedule of checkups, future colonoscopies and blood tests etc was put into place.

Life started to get back to normal and physically I probably pushed things too fast but I was able to return to work after two months.

My attitude to life had always been ‘half-full’ but I was probably more reflective and appreciative of simple things like watching my kids play sport, taking my wife out for lunches and catching up with good friends.

Writing my story and thinking about what advice I would have given myself if I had the opportunity to go back in time is interesting.

I definitely would have sought medical help earlier when those early signs of fatigue and people telling me I looked yellow started to be more frequent.

I think I coped as well as could be expected emotionally because we dealt with the problem technically.

I certainly had plenty of teary moments and awful nightmares in the weeks between diagnosis and surgery, but again I logically acknowledged that they were typical and to be expected.

We didn’t hit social media about my issues, but at the same time didn’t hide the facts from anyone especially our children, close friends and colleagues.

My advice to others dealing with bowel cancer would be be utilise the Bowel Cancer Australia resources, read stories about other people but remember your story is your story.

I would certainly recommend making sure you understand the technical aspects of your treatment plan and always ask for clarification from your medical team if you are unsure, but don’t develop an obsession.

Focus on what you can do to impact positively to your treatment, whether that is exercise or diet, and let the experts deal with those things you can’t do for yourself like bowel surgery!

As a ‘young survivor’ I can only encourage everyone to take advantage of screening programs as they hit 50, but look for opportunities to promote awareness in your family, friends and community networks of the need to see a doctor if you experience any of the early warning signs promoted in the Bowel Cancer Australia campaigns.

I knew very little about bowel cancer before my diagnosis and would not like to think of the outcome if it had not been picked up at such an early stage.

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