After returning to work after having my second son, I began to experience irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms- non-specific intermittent stomach cramping, and some mild occasional stomach bloating and pain. I have no family history of bowel cancer and I had no bleeding.
The abdominal discomfort was becoming a daily occurrence and I decided to visit the GP after a couple of weeks. The GP (and my guardian angel) that I saw that day decided to ‘cover all bases’ and ordered blood tests, an ultrasound and a colonoscopy. Yes, I am one of the very lucky people who took early action and had a very thorough GP. Every week I hear stories of women needing to convince (beg) a GP to send them for further testing, even when they have significant abdominal pain and bleeding. This needs to change!
Because I was feeling ‘well’ and life was busy, I delayed my colonoscopy for about 6 weeks. I had the colonoscopy on a Friday, and I was informed that I had 2 polyps removed, one of which the surgeon was ‘slightly concerned about’. The following Monday the GP called me in to the practice- and with my 1.5-year-old and 3.5-year-old in-tow, I was told “I’m sorry, you have bowel cancer”.
My precious and relatively protected world disintegrated with those few words. And so began my new life as a mum of two little boys, a wife, a daughter, a friend, and a colleague who had bowel cancer. While I don’t like to look back- I will also always quietly wonder, would my polyps have been ‘precancerous’ had I organised my colonoscopy urgently?
A surgical work-up was commenced and I was in the operating theatre having the right side of my bowel removed 2 weeks later. It took about 5 days to be informed by my surgeon that all of the lymph nodes that were tested were clear- which meant I didn’t need to have adjunct therapy such as chemotherapy or radiation. Again, I know- I am incredibly fortunate to have taken action when I did.
I have had a wonderful medical team who have taken care of all of the ‘life saving stuff’- a prompt diagnosis, a rapid surgery… and management of the side-effects that can occur with a bowel resection and cancer (malnutrition, muscle wasting, gross fatigue, problems with nervous system regulation, immunity challenges and the mental health test marathon, to mention a few).
Immediately after the surgery I spent a week in hospital feeling like I had been run over by a truck. There was an abundance of medical expertise at my bedside 24/7, my friends and family were hugely generous with their time and messages of love and support, and I was really too frail to comprehend 1) that I did actually have cancer, and 2) what my recovery and future may look like. The real work began when I returned home. 6 months later I am still in my recovery and I haven’t returned to work- although I am getting closer!
A cancer recovery with young children is a niche’ area of recovery, and one that requires a lot of support. Your role of mum, parent, caregiver does not simply stop because you are unwell or debilitated. Your partner (if you have one) must wear the breadwinner, carer, psychologist, chef, cleaner, driver, and playdate organiser hat. Not to mention- manage their own grief, fatigue and sadness. It is a mammoth undertaking, hugely straining and can often seem like mission impossible. Remember to think of your carers- say thank-you every day and strongly encourage them to take respite.
While the dual role of parent and patient is tough, it has also been a blessing for me. Waking up every morning to see your little children’s eyes light up when you hobble out of the bedroom, or hearing them laugh when you manage to bust out a hilarious ‘fart joke’ (mums of boys- you know it!)… is what will light your recovery fire to just keep going. And on the days that you think you can’t- connecting with the little humans in your life, will provide you with the flicker of strength to get up and move.
The duration of recovery is so variable from person to person. Your age, your pre-existing general physical and mental health, the current stressors in your life, your responsibilities (family, work, community engagements), your financial situation, and your on-going support group- will all have an impact on how you respond to your diagnosis and travel thorough your treatment or management plan.
Our Western culture which is obsessed with outputs and productivity seems to have a skewed view on recovery. It assumes that a person should return to ‘normal activities’ as quickly as possible. It’s important to remember that the conditions in your body that allowed the cancer to grow- took some time to develop. Therefore, it will take time (which is variable person to person) to recover. It is a physical, emotional and sometimes spiritual recovery.
My top tip- own and manage your recovery like it’s the most important project/job/undertaking in your universe ever, because it is. Oh and…. under promise and over deliver on your recovery goals. Surrender to the notion that some days it is one step forward and then two back. Always keep ‘some in the tank’- running on empty is guaranteed to end in failure.
There are longer term challenges with a cancer diagnosis and bowel resection: the long-term fear with every tingle, spasm, or ‘funny feeling’; the mindset challenge; the forever changed digestion which will mean closely evaluating your diet forever; the strain on all of your relationships: partner, family, friends- as you move from equal or ‘giver’ to dependent; the effects on employment and financial strain.
However a major health challenge can also change your precious life in many amazing and long-term positive ways- laying the path for your new and vastly appreciated existence. I have found wonderful life perspective and appreciation for what is really important in the short time that we all have.
I have learnt that I have more strength and determination that I ever imagined possible- I have been shown that the ‘sky is the limit’ for me. Through a major crisis you are presented with the most wonderful people who make up your most loved inner circle. I have developed great gratitude for being given a serious ‘wake-up call’ and the opportunity to make the most of every day.
My top pointers for everyone who has taken the time to read this piece- listen and ACT when your body whispers, find a GP who will listen to your concerns seriously (as it could mean the difference between an early diagnosis and a late diagnosis), prioritise your physical and emotional health above all- because without good health nothing else matters. Gather and grow your support network early (ideally pre-crisis)- likewise be an active member of your community to share your support when you can.
For health professionals both in the primary and acute care settings working with people who have a new cancer diagnosis, the following is very helpful for a patient: a printed list of helpful contacts for local cancer support services/rehabilitation/financial assistance; information on chronic disease management plans and mental health care plans; early referral to a Dietitian (even just to confirm that the patient is ‘on the right track’/ so that patient has a contact if they have future questions) and discuss early linking in to psychology supports. Consider- who would I want to be linked in with/or need to make contact with, if I was that patient. That’s the list of contacts a patient needs.