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Michelle's bowel cancer story (diagnosed age 47, NSW)

I was diagnosed with rectal cancer in January 2014 at age 47. I had first experienced some bleeding and consulted my GP in August 2013 about it. He said it was very common complaint and as I had no risk factors including no family history to come and see him if it didn’t resolve itself in a few months. The bleeding became worse and I also experienced mucus discharge on some occasions and changes in bowel habits with increased frequency.

I was pretty sure everything was OK but just to make sure I took a deep breath and looked on the Bowel Cancer Australia web site. The one thing that really jumped out at me was that 90% of colorectal cancer can be cured if it was caught early enough. I asked myself what percentage I wanted to be in and really it was a no brainer. So I figured if it was cancer and it could be fixed it was best to get that done and not stick my head in the sand and hope it goes away.

So I went back to my GP in December 2013 and demanded a colonoscopy referral. My GP was happy to refer me for this and he also conducted an internal examination which did not pick up the rectal tumour as it was just slightly too high to be felt.

I booked the colonoscopy for the end of January 2014 after everyone was back from Xmas holiday. I fully expected to be told I had haemorrhoids or something simple and being told it was a tumour was actually a huge shock despite my research. Particularly so as I felt well and healthy and I wouldn’t not believe the doctor until he showed me a photograph he had taken of the tumour. (Incidentally the tumour was nice and pink and plump looking – not the awful black thing I had imagined).

Everything happened really quickly after that. I received phone calls from chemo doctors, a surgeon and a radiologist for appointments. I had a CT scan, a MRI and blood test. Two weeks later I started radiation and chemotherapy and 4 months later I had surgery to remove the tumour and my rectum. I was lucky I only needed a temporary ileostomy while I completed 6 more months of chemo and did not need a permanent colostomy.

Sounds so simple when you write it like that !!

However the reality was slightly different. It’s not simple. Its time consuming, scary and the surgery is painful. It’s also messy and hard to discuss with friends because having a conversation about a bag of poo stuck to your tummy is kind of weird.

But if you can be a bit analytical about it, it’s also an interesting process and very awe inspiring that cancer can be fixed and hey, not many people get to see and touch their intestine and watch it move food along. Bet you didn’t know that fish and chips will digest as black stuff?

My tumour was initially a stage two verging on a three so we treated it more aggressively as a stage three. Post-surgery pathology showed the initial chemo and radiation had shrunk it to a stage one by the time it was removed and I had the post-surgery chemo mop up to ensure any random remaining cancer cells were killed off. I chose to pay for chemo (Xeloda) tablets as opposed to having it intravenously and I would highly recommend it. Having the tablets made me feel constantly a bit sick and I had no appetite but I didn’t get the big lows associated with Intra-venous chemo and I could still work and go about my normal life. It was also easy to go out to dinner and on holidays as I just had to put the tablets in my pocket and take them with meals. I didn’t really have any other side effects from the tablets.

My partner was incredibly supportive all the time. After the first two disastrous weeks of leaks and tears and tantrums he worked out how to attach and tape up the ileostomy so it never leaked and that really gave me the confidence to get on with my life during the treatment. He also helped me each time I had to change the products and was very patient when I got despondent about it. He also worked out that between chemo tablets and pain killers I took over 2000 tablets in 2014!

So did cancer change my life? Inspire me to climb mountains? Quit my job and start my own internet business? Generate world peace?

But what it did do was make me determined to do all that I had already planned and not let cancer “win”. My partner and I had decided to sell our homes and move in together just before I was diagnosed. We had already booked a two week trip to NZ with our teenagers and had planned a 6 week trip by ourselves 12 months later. And we did all those things. We postponed the NZ trip by a few months but then I packed my chemo tablets and my ileostomy products and had a ball on holidays. I took my ileostomy to a volcano, up a hill on quad bikes, jet boat riding, to ice bars and up chair lifts and swimming in hot outdoor spas. We then renovated and sold two houses, found our dream home and I moved twice in that year.

When my treatment finished we went to UK and Spain for 6 weeks on a self-travel adventure. Yes I had to pace myself, yes there were nanna naps involved, yes I walked a bit slower and yes I saw a lot of toilets but we did it all and it was great.

The good thing about bowel cancer is its really common and it behaves mostly in set patterns so the treatment is already defined and seems to work very well. I didn’t receive any conflicting advice from any of my specialists and that was very comforting.

I just had my second scan after the end of treatment and I have no evidence of cancer . Yes having no rectum is interesting at times but I’m just so grateful that I’m alive and well that I be patient when I have to spend time in the toilet and don’t get annoyed by it. I am back at work full time and while I don’t have the fitness I used to have, I just pace myself and thank God, the Universe, Whoever for amazing Medicare, wonderful doctors and my second chance at staying here for longer. I am now looking forward to the future and watching my children’s lives unfold, my grandchildren grow up and having more adventures with my partner.