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Mary-Anne's bowel cancer story (diagnosed age 49, NT)

When I was diagnosed with bowel cancer on 23 June 2011, I didn’t even ask what stage the cancer was at – I just wanted to know what I had to do to fight it.

My initial symptoms were rectal bleeding, a change of bowel habit and stomach pain. Eighteen months prior, I had started bleeding and had a colonoscopy which showed nothing. The last colonoscopy five years prior to that had showed a polyp and an unknown growth, neither of which were diagnosed as a cancer. There is no family history of bowel cancer on either side of my family either.

Before diagnosis I recall seeing my gastroenterologist and as I was explaining the pain I was experiencing (whilst holding my stomach) he looked at me and passed me a piece of paper with the name of an emotional / stomach disorder saying maybe look this up on the web. His actions made me feel that it was me and nothing wrong and put me off having the colonoscopy sooner, rather than later (many months later). I was also told at that time that it wasn’t cancer as nothing showed in the blood tests. (My markers were the same before and after cancer - no change at all).

I finally had another colonoscopy. A 6cm tumour was discovered in my rectum.

During the colonoscopy a surgeon was called in and when they talked to me afterwards I already had an appointment with the oncologist and the radiation doctor.

My treatments consisted of 6 weeks of radiotherapy (this caused pain in my rectum, as well as burns in my vagina and rectum, and tiredness) and chemotherapy (Fluorouracil (5-FU). This was followed by a resection and stoma. Then another 3 months of chemotherapy. I ended up having Capecitabine (Xeloda) after one month as I was not coping.

The chemo made me feel sick, I lost weight, my feet and hands began to peel and I experienced hair thinning.

My diet was at times a struggle as it was so hard to keep weight on. I found low residue tomato soup helped with the chemo as well as homemade juice and tinned fruit. I also ate chips and pasta, basically anything to keep weight on.

After the treatments were completed and my specialist was happy, I had the stoma reversal (five months later), followed up by strictures located in the rectum. I am still having 6 weekly general anaesthetic to stretch the area.

Throughout this journey I experienced many ups and downs. It certainly was not an easy time. I experienced a lot of anxiety after a bad experience in hospital but after practicing breathing exercises and using a relaxation CD, all seems to be going well.

At some stage this year I would like to support others, so my goal for 2013 is to start a bowel cancer support group in Darwin.