15
Sep
2014

Michael's bowel cancer story (diagnosed age 53, NSW)

My face was my reason for seeing my GP. I really wasn't that worried about the lesion on the side of my face. After all my neighbour, who is a plastic surgeon had told me it was a simple basal cell carcinoma (BCC).
 
I'd had them before and had them dealt with when time allowed for a visit to the GP. The rectal bleeding I was experiencing wasn't unusual. I had lived with a haemorrhoid for over 15 years at least, so a bit of blood wasn't a concern. I'd seen that before and wasn't worried, though it seemed a little heavier lately.
 
It was the BCC that took me to the doctor. After he wrote a referral to a dermatologist he asked "Was there anything else?" I mentioned the bleeding and he had a quick look. He saw the haemorrhoid and was relaxed about it. He asked if I had had a colonoscopy. I told him I hadn't and he suggested that at my age, being 53 perhaps I should.
 
I had been living in the UK up until last year and over there, they recommend them at age 60 and beyond. When I saw my colorectal surgeon a couple of weeks later, he had a preparatory inspection and found nothing. My colonoscopy was booked for three weeks later. All indications were that it would be routine.
 
Its a procedure that you, the reader, will probably know pretty well so it doesn't need describing here. It was early Friday afternoon and when I awoke from the anaesthetic, the doctor came round. I looked at him and before I could speak he said "There's something there. Can you come and see me at 6.00pm on Monday?" I nodded and asked what that meant. "An operation and a bag for 6 months." he said and then he was gone.
 
I have since pondered the immediacy of the delivery of such news. The direct and frank way I found out and then had to tell my wife, outside in the waiting room following 45 minutes of recovery, a sandwich, a juice and some understanding and sympathetic looks from the nursing staff seemed cold at the time. However I realise now that it was the beginning of a process where I was in shock. If it is to be, then its better to get on with it as the more time you have to process this stuff, the better. It was a difficult weekend, searching the internet etc. trying to fill a vacuum of knowledge as our fears grew. But it made that meeting with my doctor on Monday more fruitful and that was important.
 
I am 53 years old and until that weekend knew little, actually nothing, about bowel cancer. I don't blame living in the UK for the last 8 years for my ignorance. I had little exposure personally or through friends or family to cancer of any sort. I was fit, healthy, I ate well and had no reason I could see to be aware. Doctors and hospitals had not been a part of my life at all, nor my family's.
 
The days that followed the colonoscopy were full of scans and further specialist visits. After the scans and tests were done, it was determined that the tumour was to be removed and no preparatory radiotherapy or chemotherapy was required. I was operated on 10 days later.
 
The operation was a lower anterior resection. It was a success and 10 days in hospital for recovery followed, during which I was taught how to manage an ileostomy bag. A long stay for recovery was new to me and with all that I had mentally prepared for, this was one thing I had not thought of. I was naive in thinking I would have a peaceful 10 days of reading, TV etc. I struggled with the tubes coming in and out of me and the lack of mobility. My freedom was curtailed and the dreaded and famed "Day 3" was dreadful. Many told me later that day things were always difficult on the 3rd day. Who knew? Not me.
 
The cancer was stage 3, meaning that there was evidence of the cancer having been present in some of the surrounding lymph nodes and when this biopsy result was given to me, it was a further shock, especially when I asked about the probabilities of a recurrence. I had researched them but to hear the numbers was difficult, notwithstanding the fact that I was told to forget them (which I since have). Thus a six-month program of chemotherapy followed, to reduce the probability of a recurrence. Or, as my oncologist put it "to spray weed killer in winter to prevent the bindies coming up in the lawn in the spring".
 
At the time of writing I am just finishing cycle five of eight. Each is three weeks in duration, with one drug free week in each. The chemotherapy has been bearable and within my expectations. The major issues I have had have concerned the ileostomy and the hernia that has developed underneath it. Trying to manage chemo, a stoma and a hernia concurrently can be very difficult at times. I am an organised person and can cope with the side effects of the chemotherapy as they are known and come at similar times each cycle. They can be planned for. The unexpected problems come mainly from the ileostomy and I have found them harder to deal with. I rue my luck that I have three issues to deal with at once and that, were it not for the importance of the chemotherapy, the ileostomy would have been reversed by now. The hernia would be safely tucked away, not growing by the week.
 
I had to take extended time off work. I am an Executive in the investment management industry and in those cloudy early days I really didn't miss it. My mind wandered in all sorts of directions as I pondered life and wondered what the future held. I also wondered whether I should treat this as an opportunity to make changes to my life. In short I asked myself "Is this a life-changing experience?" In time I found that question to be more 'cliche' than real.
 
After a month or two, when things settled down, I began to think of my job again, and by November, I was contemplating returning to work for a few days each cycle. That contemplation has become a reality and, for me, has become the best medicine I have. My life has purpose again and I look at this episode as a speed bump in the long journey of life. Better days lie ahead and those days will simply be a return to the normality of my life pre diagnosis. That I truly believe.
 
In the early days following recovery from my operation I was very happy to talk to friends and family about the experience. Lately I have found it harder. I have also begun to struggle socially as the weeks have just gone on. Whilst mentally I remain sound (or at least I think so), it is hard to match the mood of a group in a social situation. I can cope with one or two people at once, but not many more. Perhaps this is due to my work tiring me mentally and that it gives me sufficient social interaction through the day, either being there or by phone. It's hard to say.
 
Christmas was a real challenge and it was hard for my family at that time. The ileostomy and daily life of my stoma make going out in the evening a risk. And so, I find myself withdrawing from things and waiting for this episode in my life to come to an end and for normality to return. It will do so soon. I have superb support from my wife whose devotion has been unwavering. However I have struggled to reciprocate and to give her the affection and support she needs and deserves. We talk about it and she understands the situation, though there are many times it doesn't make it any easier for her. My children do not live at home any longer and are both in their 20's. They each deal with the situation that their father has had cancer differently and we support each of them accordingly.
 
I do know that many people have things harder and have dimmer prospects than I do. I have much to be grateful for - the superb medical attention and support for one. I have to thank the BCC for the trip to the GP. As he told me later "That BCC saved your life." Chilling, but true.
 
Michael
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