What do people with bowel cancer look like? Surely, they must feel sick even if they don't look sick? Not always and certainly not in my case.
In early 2010, I had been seeing bright red blood in my stools for between four to six weeks before I saw my GP. Because a similar thing had happened after my children were born, the experience wasn’t totally unfamiliar to me. I felt normal and my energy levels were great. Nothing felt unusual or different. It must be haemorrhoids I thought!
My GP did an internal exam and felt a lump and she immediately sent me to a specialist. I had a sigmoidoscopy on 19 April 2010 and they found a growth which they biopsied. The results of the biopsy came back as “benign” but high risk of a potential cancer in the long term so I was booked in for surgery in a month's time to remove the growth.
During the surgery they removed the growth which was 5cm and further tests revealed that the growth was in fact malignant.... on the 27 May 2010 I was told that I had stage 3 bowel cancer.
I was 36 years old with two daughters who were six and four. The surgeon talked me through my options. One option was to progress on the basis that the cancer had been excised and have six months chemo just in case. The other option was to have further surgery to remove more of my bowel and lymph nodes in case the cancer had already spread. This option would result in a permanent stoma and colostomy bag. I would also need six months chemo after the surgery. This was the only way to know for sure if the cancer had spread to lymph nodes.
I wanted this cancer out of my body. I wanted total certainty and the best possible chance at staying alive for my family. It only took me 15 mins to decide on option two. My surgeon wanted me to see another specialist for a second opinion. He wanted me to be absolutely certain because it was major surgery and a colostomy bag was a big deal for anyone, let alone someone who was only 36.
On 7 June 2010, I had a bowel resection and a colostomy - a surgically created opening into the colon through the abdomen. Test results found that the cancer had spread to two of my lymph nodes. So, my decision was ultimately the right decision and I had given myself the best chance of survival.
I had 12 cycles of chemotherapy to prevent the cancer spreading to my liver or lungs. The chemo was administered over two and half days within a 14-day cycle. I experienced nausea and diarrhoea following my chemotherapy treatments and wanted to stop treatment after every cycle. It was an awful time and I experienced every emotion possible. I could not have gotten through that six month period without the love and support of family, friends and an amazing group of work colleagues.
Prior to diagnosis, I worked full time and absolutely loved my job. I couldn’t bear the thought of not being able to go to work. I wanted to keep things normal for my daughters who were used to mummy going to work each day. So, after four weeks sick leave following the surgeries, I returned to work. We also moved house around the same time.... people thought I was crazy but I was determined that my diagnosis was not going to stop me from any plans I had already made!
Over the next five years I was determined to live a full life despite undergoing regular testing for recurrence. Every year on the anniversary of the surgery, I would celebrate being cancer free - I jumped out of a plane, I got a tattoo, I celebrated with lunches and dinners with family and friends.
Being told you have bowel cancer at the age of 36 is a total shock. I was still young and had led a relatively healthy life – I was actually at my fittest when I was diagnosed. Two weeks before diagnosis I had run 8kms in the Mother's Day Classic in just under 40 minutes!!! I didn't feel sick at all!! The blood in my stools was the only sign that anything was wrong.
Don't assume it will never happen to you, like I did. I was regularly checking for lumps in my breasts but didn’t think about other types of cancer. There was no family history of bowel cancer, I didn’t have a diet high in red meat and I wasn't overweight or leading a sedentary lifestyle.
See a doctor if you notice any change in your bowel motions. Don’t be too embarrassed to talk about changes to your bowel motions.
Almost eight years later I still pinch myself - every birthday is a gift because I wasn't sure how many I might see.
Get educated about bowel cancer and get your symptoms checked.