Paula's bowel cancer story (diagnosed age 54, WA)

I was diagnosed in 2008 when I was 54. I had been complaining to doctors for years about various symptoms but I was never sent for tests – not even a bowel screen – until I started bleeding from the rectum.

I’ve been an athlete for more than 26 years, competing in marathons, triathlons, even an IronMan event. When you run a lot, diarrhoea is quite common, so everyone – including doctors – kept telling me that my various symptoms were the result of an intense training schedule. I knew things weren’t right, but it wasn’t until I started bleeding that I was finally sent for tests.
By this time, I was also having stomach pains and I had noticed changes in my stools, which I now know are symptoms of bowel cancer. When the tests revealed stage II cancer, I started immediately on a six-week course of radiotherapy and chemotherapy, followed by a month’s break to give my body time to recover for surgery.
I was given a temporary colostomy bag during my surgery, which was thankfully reversed eight months later. I was so grateful to get rid of that bag! It didn’t stop me living my life – I even travelled to France with it – but I was happy to see it go. I also had another four months of chemotherapy between surgeries.
When I first got the cancer diagnosis, I was so angry, especially when my doctor told me the cancer could have been growing for up to ten years. I am so vigilant with my health, making sure I have regular pap smears and mammograms and any other tests that are recommended to me. I eat extremely well too. Not once did anyone ever mention having a bowel screen, and I didn’t know enough to ask for one.
I cannot stress enough how hard it was to go through this. People who have any of the symptoms of bowel cancer, or a family history of the disease, really need to go and get tested. It CAN happen to you. I hate hearing people say they’d rather not know because one day they’re going to find out for sure, one way or another. I’ve put my body through years of intense sports training but nothing has been harder than the surgery and treatment for cancer. Having half my bowel removed and basically not being able to eat for 2 weeks meant I lost so much strength and energy that I struggled to walk to the end of the block. I also struggled with having to give up the exercise that had been such a big part of my life. My diet is still a problem, but I’m gradually learning what my body can and can’t process – there are so many foods I loved that I can no longer enjoy.
I was very lucky to have the love and support of my daughter and my wonderful friends. My daughter’s friends even cooked for us, delivering a casserole right to our door every week! It was such a blessing. I don’t think people realise how much a gesture like that can mean.
Everyone was wonderful… but at the same time they can’t really understand what you are going through. The best advice I can give is to avoid having to go through this at all. Get tested early. Don’t wait.
I am currently clear of cancer and am happy to report that I’m even back on my triathlon training program!
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