Michael's bowel cancer story (diagnosed age 35, NSW)

I had been healthy all my life.

I played sport and rarely needed to see a doctor.

By the time I was 35, however, I had begun to take my health for granted as my life revolved around raising two young children with my wife and working hard to build a career to support my family. I paid little regard to my diet, exercise, or sleep habits.

When I began to have changes in my bowel patterns I didn’t think much of it, even when I noticed some blood in the stool and on the paper.

By the time I did see my GP I had been experiencing symptoms for months, including urgency, gas, and bloating in addition to blood. It then took a further three months of tests and referrals before I had a colonoscopy performed.

The whole time I was told that it would be very unlikely to be cancer and as such there was never a great deal of urgency either on my part or by my doctors. I will never forget the moment shortly after waking from the procedure when the surgeon told me and my wife that he had discovered a large tumour in my rectum that he believed was malignant.

Further testing over the following weeks confirmed my worst fears – that the tumour was indeed a malignant carcinoma and scans showed that the cancer had spread to my liver. A stage IV diagnosis.

Since then I have undergone 25 rounds of daily radiation therapy, 6 months of chemotherapy, and 2 surgeries. Unfortunately, due to the location of the primary tumour and the late stage of diagnosis I now have a permanent stoma and colostomy. The good news is that I responded well to the treatments, the cancer is gone and I am now in complete remission.

I have been told that the cancer will likely return in my liver at some stage, but if that does happen my surgeon is confident that it can be dealt with. What is important when it comes to medical treatment is to remember that you are in charge.

I sought a second opinion at a different hospital because I felt that my initial doctors were not confident with their prognosis. I did some research and decided to go with another oncology team, still within the public system, even though it meant a lot of travel to receive my treatment. I did this because I felt more confident with the second prognosis and I truly believe that this was a critical decision.

Once I got over the initial shock of my diagnosis one of the first things I did was to seek out positive stories of people who had survived and the Bowel Cancer Australia website provided that and set me on the road to recovery. The medical treatments are absolutely essential, but these will test you to your limits and it is important to maintain a positive outlook and understand that cancer (even a Stage IV diagnosis) is not a death sentence.

It isn’t possible to be positive every day and don’t be hard on yourself for the days that you feel scared or angry. What helped me was to focus on my reasons for living and to accept responsibility for those lifestyle factors that are within my control to change.

Diet and exercise are key, but also reducing stress and reaching out to people who understand what you’re going through. Seek out those people through associations such as Bowel Cancer Australia, local support groups, literary resources, and complimentary therapists.

Of course looking back I wish that I had paid more attention to my body and been more aware of my elevated risk factor from lifestyle choices and family history. Had I taken better care of myself or visited my GP at the first sign of symptoms it’s likely that I could have avoided a lot of trauma. My advice to anyone is that it can happen to you so don’t be complacent.

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