I was 39 years old when I was diagnosed with Stage 3 bowel cancer.
On reflection, I’d had a niggling feeling that something wasn’t right for a while, but I was an expert at ignoring that inner nagging voice and just getting on with my busy life. I was working hard at a job I loved, with two beautiful young girls aged 4 and 8, and loved socialising on weekends… who wouldn’t be tired?
The one symptom I had that pushed me to go to a GP was constipation, which led to stomach aches and a general feeling of being unwell. I had a family history of bowel cancer, with my mum and her father being diagnosed in their 60s, but the GP I saw assured me it wouldn’t be bowel cancer for someone my age. I was too young.
On my third visit to a GP, I asked for a referral for a colonoscopy and was begrudgingly given one… it was suggested I wait another week or so before making an appointment, as ‘most women my age experience constipation’.
On the day of my colonoscopy, I felt like a fraud, and I was wasting the Gastroenterologist’s time. It seemed like a bad joke when he spoke to me afterwards and confirmed I had done the right thing… he found a lesion, I’d need surgery and should have a CT scan that afternoon.
A week later, I met with my surgeon who confirmed it was cancer. He was squeezing in my surgery a few days before Christmas – I wouldn’t be home with my family on Christmas Day and I thought this was the worst of it. It wasn’t. For me, the hardest part was being told just before the end of the year that I would need chemotherapy – seven of the 34 lymph nodes removed during surgery were affected.
This was when it got real.
I had to figure out how to navigate the experience of chemotherapy with my kids, how to handle the appointments and how it might affect our family financially.
I had eight rounds of Capecitabine and Oxaliplatin. It was the most challenging experience of my life – a complete roller coaster of emotions affecting every area of my life – physically, emotionally, mentally, financially. I think I experienced every side effect and ended up back in hospital for 10 days for my 40th birthday – not the holiday I had planned!
It was an awful feeling counting down the days until your next cycle, feeling like you’re about to get back in the boxing ring for another brutal battle, missing precious moments with your kids… but that you’re one step closer to killing the cancer.
But luckily for me, it worked - I was in remission in July 2019.
I had some side effects that lingered for a while, mostly peripheral nerve damage, but these all improved over time and I’m now back to a ‘normal’ life. And every day I marvel over how lucky I am.
The most unexpected gift that cancer gave me was the realisation of how much good there is in the world and how many people want to help when times are tough. I knew I had a wonderful husband and kids, a loving family and friends, but having cancer showed me the absolute best in people. The kindness of people was a little overwhelming at times, but so appreciated. It was a good lesson in the importance of saying ‘yes’ when help was offered.
To anyone who is facing cancer and at the start of their journey, know that you will find strength you didn’t know you had. You will see the beauty of human kindness in a whole new light and will appreciate the support from the most unexpected of places. Our medical system in Australia is amazing and now, more than even before, is the best time to kick cancer.