At age 34, days before Christmas I was diagnosed with Stage 3 bowel cancer. I was a healthy, busy mother of two, lawyer with next to no symptoms.
Early December 2020, for about 2 weeks I noticed some dark red blood in my stool. It was minuscule, inconspicuous, enough to ignore. I had some back pain, but it would come and go, nothing to cause concern. I had no other symptoms, no family history and was healthy.
I had a bad feeling and for some reason I made an appointment with my GP to investigate. My GP was not concerned, after all nothing appeared too serious. I didn't feel right, and I asked to be referred for a colonoscopy, just to be safe. I called to make an appointment for a colonoscopy to be told by the receptionist that it wasn’t urgent, and the next available appointment was late February.
Again, this didn’t sit well with me, so I asked for the Gastroenterologist to call me. He called me the same day on that Wednesday afternoon and almost laughed at the thought of it being serious or even cancerous. He said he had one urgent spot for the Monday and I said great, I’ll take it! At this point I felt a little dramatic but ultimately, I was right.
First thing Monday, I went in for the colonoscopy. I woke up in a haze when I saw my Gastroenterologist appear, he was pale and looked at me and said I’m sorry Carmal, you have bowel cancer. I was there in my gown sobbing, just wanting to go home. From there, the whirlwind began, scans, tests and more tests, appointment with surgeons, oh and Christmas!
The next day I received a call to say that it was great news, my cancer had not spread to my liver, but lymph nodes were inconclusive. Not understanding the severity of my diagnosis, I was like yeah of course it hasn’t, not realising that was a very real and serious risk!
I saw my surgeon on Christmas Eve who delivered me the news that it was pretty bad. I know you get the worst-case scenario but at that stage the tumour looked large and looked like it had spread to my pelvis. I would likely need radiotherapy, chemotherapy, surgery, the works. The surgeon couldn’t operate until February which I said didn’t work for me mentally and I was booked into see his colleague who was working over Christmas. Anyway, Merry Christmas!
So, I saw my next surgeon on 28th December 2020. Like the others, he was shocked! The scans appeared very bad. He said he could operate on the 5th of January 2021. I asked if there was anything sooner and he said that it had only been about 2 weeks since I was diagnosed so I settled for that. The two things I remember from that appointment, I asked if there was a chance it wasn’t as bad as he thought, and he said extremely small but I took that and I said he just needs to make me okay and he looked at me and said he cannot guarantee that but he will try his best. That’s when it sunk in that this wasn’t great!
I took the next week to really spend time with the girls. Every day I tried to do something, just be in the moment. Something we should all do every day. It was magical. I went from thinking why me?! To why not me?!
I had surgery on the 5th January 2021. Surprisingly, I wasn’t scared, I was excited, I wanted that cancer out! Next thing I knew, I woke up in ICU. I didn’t have a bag and I didn’t have a vertical incision. This was either very good or very bad! I begged for answers but had to wait the next day to see my surgeon.
That small hope I held onto was right. The tumour was smaller than expected. It hadn’t travelled to my pelvis and he had taken 18 lymph nodes out for testing. As I told him, it was better than expected. He was shocked but agreed. When he came to tell me, I was so hungry and all I wanted was food. I remember eating what was probably water with vegetable stock and telling my surgeon that this was the most delicious food I had ever tasted. He probably thought he had given me a lobotomy rather than removed cancer.
The next day I got the results that the cancer had spread to 1 of the 18 lymph nodes so I would need to undergo chemotherapy. This was okay, it was better than the worst-case scenario. I was okay and that was the main thing.
I recovered better than expected from surgery and my at least 10 days stay turned into 4 days. It took a while for my body to heal but it did it pretty well. And a month later, I began chemo. My chemo regime was awful then good, awful then good on a continuous cycle. I had a double dose of chemotherapy to knock it on the head. I had oral and intravenous chemotherapy. It was an intense, tough time, but so important to get through.
The main thing I want to spread is awareness! If this helps one person do a test or follow up symptoms, then I’ll be happy. The earlier bowel cancer is detected the better the outcome.
I am so lucky that it was caught early enough. I now have regular appointments, scans, colonoscopies, blood tests to ensure I am cancer free. I am coming up to my third year since my initial diagnosis. I am so grateful that I followed my instincts and demanded investigations.
My advice, listen to your body and trust your instincts; life is short - so live in the moment and appreciate the small things; the kids yelling at me from one room to another is now a blessing.
Ironically, I feel grateful. Grateful that it was found, grateful to have my life and just grateful.
More than one piece, but all as important.