On the 17th of January 2020 it was Lucy, my daughters, 5th Birthday. Also on that day, I was told that I needed to gather my army. I needed my army because I was going into battle, a battle to make sure I would see Lucy's 6th birthday. I was diagnosed with Stage 3 rectal cancer on that day, I was 36.
A mum of two wonderful children, Lucy and George, who was 3 at the time. I was living a happy and healthy life, enjoying the rollercoaster of motherhood, but the rollercoaster all of a sudden got super scary and I wasn't sure if I wanted to ride anymore. The rectal bleeding turned out not to be haemorrhoids, the tiredness was not motherhood and it took buckling pain for us to discover the monster inside me.
Mum had died of cancer in 2016 and my sister in-law was in a battle of her own, so cancer wasn't unfamiliar to me. However, there's this instant gut response of 'is this the end'. The only experience or stories I had ever heard where that cancer was a death sentence (but is it?). I was determined to get the strongest army that I could and fight it out. I'm almost three years cancer free and there IS life after cancer, I wish we were more familiar with this possibility even if it’s not always the case.
From here I gave all my trust and faith to a complete stranger, my colorectal surgeon (turned out he was actually a super hero in disguise). He gave me the confidence and reassurance that he had the medical side covered and all I needed to do was build the support around me, build on my mental health, fitness and spend time my family the best I could and prepare myself for the marathon ahead.
My tumour was very low in my rectum and large, the plan was we would start with 25 rounds of radiation and oral chemo with the intent to shrink the tumour to an operable size and follow with 12 rounds of chemo. I finished the radiation treatment and with some pretty bad luck I developed an infection and was admitted for an emergency surgery for the infection to be drain and a colostomy put in. Scans afterward revealed that there were actually tumours at the bottom of my spine also (insert profanities) so this new information very quickly changed our plans.
We waited very anxiously whist my surgeon consulted the other superheroes on the Colorectal Board of Australia. Once they studied and poured over my scans and scenario it was decided that I was to travel from Adelaide to Sydney for a Pelvic Exenteration. Away from kids and husband, in the thick of a worldwide pandemic to have one of the biggest operations one can have. But I was here for it and I was ready to battle (crying and frightened but ready to battle).
We didn't really know what to expect and to be honest it was like a whirlwind of finding out and leaving on the plane (by myself and on the only plane that was actually flying to Sydney due to COVID, the trip felt barren and surreal, like I was in a post-apocalyptic world)
The Pelvic Exenteration was a 11.5 hour operation. They removed my rectum, did a bowel resection, a full hysterectomy and a reconstruction of the vaginal wall. They also removed my tail bone and the bone above. I was fortunate enough that they were able to spare my bladder. Recovery was long and difficult, physically and mentally, and was most definitely a marathon. I spent 4 weeks in Sydney and the pandemic was raging, so it became an urgency to get me back home to Adelaide.
I was privileged that the Royal Flying Doctors flew me home. Once here I spent another two weeks in hospital, however I still hadn't seen my kids as they were not allowed into the hospital due to COVID. But let me tell you, reuniting with them at home when I was finally well enough, was like giving birth all over again. The relief that we were back together in each other’s arms again was like nothing else existed, my heart was healed.
Next followed 12 weeks of chemotherapy, oncology rehab and physiotherapy. I do have ongoing difficulties from such a big operation and cancer treatment in general, though I am here living, I'm working and tap dancing and just started to run again. My strength has built up, I can walk the kids to school and pump iron at the gym (well I'm pumping baby weights but I'm still pumping). I'm doing pretty good considering.
Thank you for reading this far, unfortunately this is a condensed version of my trials and tribulations of this journey (sadly I wish this was the whole story, but it is not). I've never been so humbled from an experience, I've never been so scared, I've never loved so hard and I've never known myself as a kick ass woman, but I do now and say hell yes I am a kick ass woman, even on the hard days (because living beyond cancer isn't all peaches and cream and it comes with some really hard unexpected challenges but that's for another time).
I did a hard thing, we all can do hard things sometimes, we just need to gather our Army.
No one knows your outcome, gather your army and give it your best shot. You are going to feel all the emotions, let yourself, it’s part of the journey. You can do hard things and you are amazing.