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Danielle's bowel cancer story (diagnosed at 34, QLD)

I was diagnosed with bowel cancer in July 2017. I had just turned 34.

I had started studying nursing the year before.

Early in my first semester, the lecturer’s words “blood in your poo is never normal, it’s always a symptom of something!” stuck with me.

They were the wake-up call I needed.

In November I eventually went to my GP, who reassured me that because of my age I wouldn’t have cancer but she referred me for a colonoscopy to see what could be the cause of the bleeding I was experiencing.

I had taken a photo of the bloody poo for her, but she didn’t want to see it!

I kept an eye on the letterbox but didn’t hear anything. 3 months later I returned to my GP who agreed I should have heard something and resent the referral.

It took 8 months for me to get the colonoscopy and during this time I continued to have bleeding.

I had other symptoms of cramping, mucous, and narrowed poo, but as they weren’t severe I didn’t notice until the surgery resolved them.

At the colonoscopy I was told as I was being sedated that they wouldn’t find anything as I was too young.

By this stage I had started to believe it myself, and expected to be told to avoid gluten after the colonoscopy.

The same doctor had to tell me afterwards that they had found a large, ulcerated, partially obstructing tumour that was likely malignant.

I was told a tumour this size would usually have gone through most layers of the bowel and now the question was whether it had spread to other organs.

I was to have a CT scan within a week that would show this. After this, I would meet with a surgeon to discuss whether surgery was an option going forward.

Waiting for the CT scan and the results was the worst time of the whole process. I was over the moon to find out that my chest abdomen and pelvis were clear!

I was booked in for surgery twelve days after the colonoscopy. Things moved so fast.

I had a high anterior resection, where they removed the cancer and surrounding lymph nodes, and stitched the cancer free ends of the bowel back together.

I didn’t end up needing a colostomy bag, but going into the surgery I didn’t care if I woke up with one; I just wanted the cancer out.

I recovered well physically. I had been told I would likely need chemotherapy due to my young age.

I had 31 lymph nodes removed, all cancer free so I was stage 2A. The specialists decided that I wouldn’t need chemotherapy.

My life as I knew it stopped when I was diagnosed, and everything became cancer focussed.

Being a working, studying, single mum meant I had a huge amount of practical things to organise.

When I was told that I wouldn’t need chemotherapy it felt like cancer was over. Great!

Only now I wasn’t sure how to get back to normal. I ended up going back to university two weeks after my surgery, and back to my job as a counsellor two and a half weeks after the surgery. Keeping busy stopped me from ruminating and I could feel my mood start to lift.

Cancer seems to be a two (or more) headed beast.

The physical side is one thing, but the mental side is another.

I was put back together and “cured” physically by surgeons who did a great job on that side of things, but mentally I was left to figure things out and access support on my own.

I felt disconnected from the people I love, like cancer had caused this space to open and I was alone on the other side. I joined an online support groups.

Talking to people who have been where I am helped me feel less alone. Bowel Cancer Australia has also been wonderful.

Being staged 2A and currently “cured” leaves me now feeling that I am being melodramatic if I am having a hard day – survivor guilt is real and yet another head to this beast!

Today I’m working on my university assignments and what I’ve been through in the past 10 weeks seems surreal.

I told some of my friends about my diagnosis, and they were all supportive and gave me the space I needed to process my feelings. My GP has been everything I could have asked for in a GP.

I am so grateful to her. I kept things quiet at work because I didn’t want to have conversations with co-workers about something I still feel vulnerable about.

Maybe one day I will be in a place where I am more public with my cancer journey, but for now it is my way of coping to be private.

My advice for others is: if you have any concerns, talk to your GP; if you don’t feel comfortable talking to them, or if they don’t take you seriously, get a new GP.

So many young people have their initial concerns dismissed, which wastes time while cancer grows.

My next advice is to be an active member of your health care. Make sure referrals are received, and ask when you can expect to hear from people.

If you don’t hear from them, then follow up!

No one is promised a tomorrow. A cancer diagnosis doesn’t change that; it just makes it feel more tangible. I was always scared of getting cancer.

This brush with my own mortality has shown me that I am not invincible, but it has also shown me that when the worst happens I will face it with strength, determination and my own sense of humour. And I’ll get through.

Come at me life!