Advertising tells us that if we notice blood when we go to the toilet, we must tell our doctor. Well... a few years ago, I was living in the UK and I started to notice a little bit of bright red blood. I was embarrassed about it but knew that it was necessary to tell the doctor, especially since my father had had bowel cancer. To my surprise, my symptoms were brushed aside as probably being nothing - maybe a scratch or irritation.
The occasional blood kept happening, so I spoke to a doctor again. It was again brushed aside as probably being haemorrhoids, but the GP investigated and was unable to see any. I was prescribed suppositories in case there was a haemorrhoid higher up in the rectum... but the intermittent blood in the toilet/in my poo continued, so I told a doctor again. I was informed it was unlikely to be anything sinister because I was my early forties, plus I wasn’t experiencing any change of appetite or pain, or constipation...
The blood in my poo stopped happening for a while and I stopped thinking about it and busied myself with planning my relocation home to Australia.
Back in Melbourne I suddenly had blood/mucus re-appearing on the toilet paper, and in my poo - not huge amounts, but enough to worry me again. I also started to feel inexplicably exhausted, drained of energy and generally unwell. I told my local GP, who said I probably had haemorrhoids, but she couldn’t find any on investigation and said I should let her know if it happened again. She referred me to a haematologist to see if a diagnosis could be found for my exhaustion.
Blood tests showed nothing out of the ordinary apart from slightly raised inflammatory markers. The specialist suggested that I try antidepressants for the fatigue and when I told him about the blood... he said it was probably haemorrhoids.
The symptoms kept happening and I felt that I wasn’t being taken seriously, so I decided to take some photographs with my phone!! (You’ll be very relieved to know that I am not going to post any of them here! :-)) I showed the photos to the doctor, who immediately referred me to a gastroenterologist, who referred me for an urgent colonoscopy.
Guess what they found? Yep, a cancer (a polyp that had become an adenocarcinoma). I was 43 years old. I received the phone call when I was at work. I’ll never forget that sickening, numb shock, but at the same time, I wasn’t surprised at all. I had known that something was wrong with me for a couple of years!
I then lived through weeks of the strange reality of having tests and procedures to try to determine if they got it all, or if I needed to have a section of my colon removed. It was decided that an aggressive course of action was necessary due to my father’s history of bowel cancer and my ‘young’ age.
I had an operation called a High Anterior Resection to remove the bottom third of my descending colon, all of my sigmoid colon and the top third of my rectum. They took 44 lymph nodes too, and luckily none of them showed evidence of the cancer spreading.
I am now getting close to being two years on from my surgery and I am cancer free. I am very grateful.
I feel frustrated that my symptoms were not taken more seriously, but very glad that I persisted with the GPs until I got that colonoscopy referral.
Now, I happen to know that other people have approached their doctors with similar symptoms and have been referred for a colonoscopy straight away, so maybe I was just unlucky, but even so... My advice to other young people is to please not ignore symptoms, no matter how embarrassing, and even more important, please don’t allow your doctor/s to be complacent about your symptoms.
The biggest challenge I faced as someone diagnosed with bowel cancer under 50 was getting my symptoms taken seriously by doctors, even though my father had had bowel cancer with liver metastases. I also found my recovery afterwards – mentally, emotionally and physically – to be far more of a challenge than I’d expected, and I have learnt that everyone recovers and heals differently.
There is an assumption that if you are young, you will bounce back quickly and easily, but I struggled for quite some time. Nearly two years on, I am feeling good and getting on with my life.
My advice to other young people is to please not ignore symptoms, no matter how embarrassing, and even more importantly, please trust your instincts and don’t allow your doctor/s to be complacent about your symptoms.
Thanks for listening, especially since it's all about poo :-)
Bowel Cancer... You're Never Too Young
Launched in 2014, Bowel Cancer Australia’s ‘Bowel Cancer... You're Never Too Young’ initiative was created to provide bowel cancer resources uniquely designed for younger people.
Offering practical and emotional support for the growing number of young people affected by bowel cancer (and their loved ones), championing what matters most to people living with or beyond young-onset bowel cancer, while challenging perceptions through dynamic campaigning that raises awareness and motivates action in all young Australians.
A highlight of the initiative is Never Too Young Awareness Week - a dedicated week during Bowel Cancer Awareness Month that highlights the unique challenges faced by people who are living with or beyond young-onset bowel cancer.
For further details and to become a #Never2Young Champion head to nevertooyoung.org.au