Felicity's bowel cancer story (diagnosed age 38, VIC)

In August 2010 my life changed forever.  Nothing can prepare you for a bowel cancer diagnosis at just 38 years old.

I had been given what I thought was a routine colonoscopy to investigate the cause of my iron deficiency, which my doctor thought was probably due to an ulcer. But as I lay in bed in the recovery room after being told they had found a tumour, I remember thinking: ‘I’m too young.  I have a husband and two young boys.  This can’t be happening to me’.  

Within a week, I was having surgery to remove the cancer and 50 per cent of my bowel.  Then there was the wait for the test results to see if the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes; it had, which meant six months of chemotherapy too.

I’m here to tell you that the symptoms of bowel cancer can be silent.  I had no obvious bleeding, weight loss or stomach pain, which are the signs you're told to look for.  I visited my GP several times in early 2010 because I was feeling extremely fatigued but, between working part-time and caring for two young boys, that didn't seem too unusual. At first I was sent for heart tests because I'd had some chest pain and was struggling to exercise because I felt so drained.  When these results came back negative, I was told the next option was to see a gastroenterologist to look into my iron deficiency, and the rest is history.

I had chemotherapy from September 2010 to March 2011 and it was a real struggle for me, physically and mentally.  As well as the tiredness, nausea and neuropathy, the mental challenge of wondering if I would survive was ever present.  It was difficult to stay strong during treatment. Friends and family kept telling me to be positive but it is easier said than done when you’re feeling rotten thanks to a toxic mix of chemicals raging through your body.  And I couldn’t help but ponder the 'what ifs’… what if it had been caught earlier, what if I had been more in touch with my body, what if the cancer hadn’t spread…

I'm finding life after chemo mentally challenging. Finishing treatment was a huge relief, and the physical symptoms such as nausea, tiredness and numbness in hands and feet do improve with time, but the emotional scars are left.  I'm grateful to be alive, thanks to the wonderful care of the doctors and nursing staff at Cabrini Hospital (Malvern).  This experience has been a huge wake up call for me to enjoy every day and spend quality time with my family, particularly my very young boys.  It has driven me to help get the message out there that a simple test could save your life.

I want to share my story to show that bowel cancer does not discriminate.  It is the second most common cancer in Australia, but is highly treatable if caught early enough, and even preventable. Bowel cancer is portrayed in the media as an older person's disease, with testing recommended from 50 onwards.  But if you feel something is not right with your body – perhaps you are experiencing bowel symptoms that are unusual for you, or have a persistent iron deficiency – or if you have a family history of the disease, please see your GP, no matter how old you are.  A bowel screen test or a colonoscopy really could save your life.

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