Stephanie's bowel cancer story (diagnosed age 21, QLD)

I woke from what was supposed to be a routine, last resort colonoscopy and was advised that my undertaking of this small procedure had saved my life.

I was diagnosed with bowel cancer last year in October 2012 at the age of 21.

It took about a year of complaining to my GP about severe cramps and uncomfortable, changed bowel habits for me to be put on the public health waiting list for a colonoscopy and endoscopy.

Initially, my GP suggested my discomfort may be caused by a food intolerance, lack of fibre, stress or an irritable bowel. After nearly two years on the waiting list and a few months after a consult with a Gastroenterologist, I had my scopes. The findings were devastating.

More than 40 polyps were discovered. Several were sessile serrated polyps, one a villous adenoma with cancer in it and one a tubulovillous adenoma. As a result of having so many polyps within my bowel, I undertook genetic testing for Lynch Syndrome and Familial Adenomatous Polyposis which showed there was no gene present to cause this, therefore the results remain as an ‘unknown predisposition’.

Initially, I was told becoming a permanent Ostomate was likely, as my entire large bowel needed to come out. Luckily, this was avoided, as my doctors agreed a Restorative Proctocolectomy (formation of a j-pouch) was possible.

On December 19 2012, my large bowel was removed and a j-pouch created. I was given a temporary loop ileostomy while my pouch healed and had my stoma reversal surgery in February this year.

Bowel cancer has definitely made me more conscious about the importance of a good diet and exercise in staying healthy. In the months before my surgery, I focused on getting my body in the best shape possible. I now follow a diet that aims to help my j-pouch adjust and I add fibre to bulk up my output.

The j-pouch is not an overly common option for people with bowel cancer, but considering my situation, my specialist thought it was one of the better options. It will take 6-12 months to adapt back to a normal diet, and hopefully everything will go back to normal.

There is no denying bowel cancer has forever changed my life. At 21, it has re-shaped and influenced my priorities and has given me a new appreciation for medicine, scientific research and charity.

When I was first diagnosed with cancer I joined Canteen, which was great. I was glad I joined as soon as I did, as I was able to talk with other young people going through cancer. I also joined the Red Kite Foundation, who were really helpful. Considering I was at University in my last year in a Bachelor of Journalism degree, I was given Coles vouchers to help out where possible. That sort of support was priceless. My University then gave me a financial learning bursary. Within nine days, I went from graduating with my degree to having my bowel resection.

Physically, I am forever different and every day struggle with the changes to my body. Psychologically and emotionally, I sometimes feel depressed and worry about my future health. I've lost trust in my body and occasionally feel very isolated in my struggles. I wished I had known young people can get bowel cancer. I had typically thought only old men got bowel cancer.

My parents did not cope as well with my diagnosis as my mother felt she was to blame and started to research what she may have done many years ago before I was even born to have allowed this to happen to me. She was convinced it was her fault. It has taken mum and dad a while to relax and trust that I am ok.

My mum and my sister have both had clear colonoscopies and we are still waiting for my brother and dad to go and have theirs to ensure they too are ok.

My family, friends and support group are invaluable and their love constantly reminds me to be positive and appreciate life.

Banner Bowel Cancer Australia Helpline
Support Bowel Cancer Australia
Bowel Cancer Australia Bowel Cancer App