I’d had stomach discomfort (bloating, occasional diarrhoea, cramping) on and off for a year or so, before seeing my GP. Looking back, I was also probably a bit more tired than usual however having only become a first time parent the year prior, I put a lot of my symptoms down to that. I was only 33 at the time.
After finally getting to the GP, further investigation showed I had blood in my stool. However, my blood tests apparently ruled out anything ‘sinister’, so I toddled off rather nonchalantly to my ‘precautionary’ colonoscopy.
But, Thursday 2nd February 2017 was to become a day I will never forget. Everything went smoothly with my admission and I was waking up in recovery in no time. My Mum arrived to pick me up, ready to take me out for a well deserved lunch.
However, it was not to be as there was a nurse hot on Mum’s heels eager to tell us my gastroenterologist wanted to see me in his rooms. It did seem odd, but I remained blissfully ignorant as I sat before him an hour later awaiting the lowdown on my gluten intolerance, IBS diagnosis or god forbid...haemorrhoids!
I distinctly recall his shaking hands as he explained each photo of a 7cm malignant tumour located in my sigmoid colon. ‘I’m sorry Sarah, we’re confident it’s bowel cancer’. ‘You’re so young’ he kept saying. ‘We did not expect this’. Phrases I’ve heard numerous times since.
I walked out, somewhat dumbfounded, with a referral in hand to a colorectal surgeon they’d arranged for me to see the following day. Then I headed next door for an ‘urgent’ CT scan. By that stage I’d started putting all the pieces together...they were looking for spread of the cancer...this was serious. Waiting for those results was the longest 30 minutes of my life.
I learned the cancer had spread into my lymph nodes but fortunately there was no detection of disease in any other organs. I was diagnosed as stage 3 and scheduled for surgery the following week.
Six weeks after having my sigmoid colon removed, a portacath was implanted just below my right collarbone ready to commence 6 months of chemo. I was initially on the folfox regime (oxaliplatin and flurouracil combo). Although, after my first 3 cycles were spent in the cardiac ward for a week each time, due to rare heart attack symptoms, the oxaliplatin was stopped.
Blood tests, on what seemed like every other day; the take home chemo pump for 2 days; followed by 1 day in hospital on IV fluids to ‘pick me back up’ each fortnight, became my new normal. Some days I honestly didn’t want to go on - those were the days that I was so unwell I couldn’t even open my eyes. It was a hard slog going back for more each fortnight but I kept reminding myself of my baby girl and husband waiting patiently for me to get better.
I had the most caring, approachable and humble medical team. I threw them many curveballs and endearingly became known as ‘the problem child’. Nothing was ever too much and no question or concern was overlooked or unanswered. With the added support from my family and some very good friends, who regularly sat with me during treatments and brought hot chips and gravy to my hospital bedside, I finished all 12 chemo rounds on September 6 2017.
In the weeks following I gradually felt better and better each day as the chemo ‘fog’ lifted. You don’t realise how ‘down’ you are until you start coming back up again. I’m still not 100% five months later, especially my general fitness (getting up a flight of stairs can still leave me breathless), however I see improvements everyday.
I was pretty determined to get life back to normal and returned to work (part time) in October. This was probably a little premature however it’s been a huge positive for my mental wellbeing.
I am now in remission with no evidence of disease, and whilst I do have pangs of worry with little ache or pains, thinking that the cancer has returned, I just keep focusing on getting on with life and trying to be grateful for each day. Sadly, too many people, particularly young people, have not been as fortunate in their fight against this disease.
I’ll be on a fairly ‘short leash’, as my oncologist describes, for the next 5 years. especially as I was concurrently diagnosed with sessile serrated polyposis (which needs to be closely monitored as sessile serrated polyps can be particularly nasty). With no clear family history, genetic testing was done and actually found that I carry the BRIP1 gene mutation. Funnily enough there is no known relationship between this genetic defect and Bowel cancer. It does however increase my risk of breast and ovarian cancer. Getting Bowel cancer was in a way fortuitous as I’d otherwise likely never learned I carry this rare genetic risk.
One thing I wish I’d seen coming was a sudden episode of depression I experienced around Christmas/New Year. The enormity of what I’d come through hit me all at once and for the first time since that dreadful day I dropped my sword and shield and grieved everything I’d ‘lost’ that year.
Despite feeling overwhelmed by the experience from time to time, I can see so many positives. I’ve made some wonderful new friendships with a group of other young women who’ve been through this (fostered through the Bowel Cancer Australia peer to peer support network). I have also gained a healthy new perspective on life and feel like I have new purpose.
What’s my new purpose? To help spread the message that you’re never too young to get Bowel cancer and the importance of listening to your body. I also want to be a support for other young people on the bowel cancer ‘merry-go-round’ as having that support myself, was invaluable.