I was 34 when I was diagnosed with stage 3 rectal cancer, July 2018.
The months leading up to this diagnosis I had experienced weight loss, increased fatigue and slight changes in my bowel habits including some bleeding. I gave myself reasons behind all of these symptoms until I could not play a game of soccer due to dizziness.
My team mates commented that I looked pale. It was this event that led me to obtain a blood test which showed I had a significant low haemoglobin and iron levels. I saw my GP who could feel a lump during examination. The following week I had an appointment with my colorectal surgeon where he explained possible diagnoses for my symptoms, one being cancer.
This was the first time I started to feel nervous. I had a CT scan that same day which was clear, the cancer had not spread to my other organs. A week later I had a colonoscopy where the surgeon confirmed the diagnosis of bowel cancer followed by an MRI scan to determine staging with the cancer.
It was after I saw the surgeon when I realised, I had to tell my family. How do I tell my parents and sister I have cancer. We were all a blubbering mess but were ready to take on the treatment together. Telling friends and colleagues was also a challenging time but they showed me nothing but support and love.
I meet with my oncologist who updated us on the stage of the cancer. I was told I had a 9cm tumour in my rectum. I was to undergo radiation therapy on my pelvis to shrink the tumour giving the surgeon better margins for surgery. The radiation was going to affect my ability to have children.
Due to my age and that I planned on having children I meet with a gynaecologist. I had procedures to freeze ovarian tissue and eggs. The radiation went for 5 days each week for 5 weeks. The treatment itself was not difficult, there was no pain just frustrating at times having to drive to the facility each day.
Whilst having the radiotherapy I was taking chemotherapy tablets. Fortunately I did not suffer from the side effects. I continued to work whilst going through this treatment, I did not want this whole cancer thing to make my life stop.
Surgery followed 10 weeks post completing radiation. The tumour was removed and I woke up with an ileostomy. Surgery went very well, surgeon was happy and I now had to adapt to life with an ileostomy bag. There was good days and awful days, but was able to stay positive and get through the 8 weeks.
The reversal surgery went well and I no longer had to poo in a bag outside my body. This was a rough transition and one I was unprepared for. Each week got better and I now, 4 weeks post reversal feel comfortable going out and going back to work.
The final stage of my treatment was chemo post-surgery which I was fortunate enough to only need to take it in oral form. This was some of the best news, I was not keen for intravenous chemo with the risk of losing my hair and potentially getting unwell. I am currently taking the tablets with minimal side effects and in a couple of months I would have completed my treatment.
Whilst the journey isn't over just yet, I feel like I have already kicked bowel cancers ass, and I would not have been able to do it without the support of my amazing family and friends. They were so amazing throughout the whole process.
During this experience I watched so many videos and testimonies of other bowel cancer sufferers and seeing those men and women were truly inspirational and helped me to realise I wasn’t alone in this fight.
A Sister’s Perspective (Hanna's Kick Ass Story)
I had just returned from an incredible trip to Russia for the 2018 World Cup, riding high on the excitement and fullness an amazing experience brings you. My sister Shelley came over for a family dinner to recount the details of my trip and bask in the beautiful pictures of Moscow, Kazan and Samara.
Or so I thought.
Dinner is eaten and my sister looks at me and tells me she has news. I instinctively turn to my mum, who catches my gaze and shakes her head as if to say, “it’s not good news”. Shell delivers the blow; “I have Cancer”.
Panic and distress grip my chest and I jump over and sit in front of her, ask “what do you mean?” Tears start falling, and she tells me its bowel cancer, she found out when I was away, and she would need to have surgery and radiation and all that fun stuff. I was kind of hoping it was a stupid joke, but the tears in my father’s eyes whom I’ve never witness cry in my 32 years tells me otherwise.
I start with the questions; “how did it happen?” “what’s the plan?” when can you have surgery?”.
She tells me about how she was struggling to shake off a cold, then felt dizzy and ill playing soccer one day. A few other symptoms later she takes it upon herself to get some tests done and within two weeks she is diagnosed with rectal cancer and has a team of specialists at the ready for all the necessary surgery’s and treatments.
The first few days were some of the worst. All I felt was shock and anger over the unfairness of it all. Shell is such a vivacious character, who helps others for a living in her role as a nurse, has a gazillion friends (I can no longer keep up with who’s who), and dreams of being a mum one day. In the space of two weeks she’s now faced with having to be a patient in the hospital being cared for, instead of the other way around, and there’s a now a possibility her future as a mum may never be realised.
As the next few weeks progressed, Shell began a series of treatments and procedures to try and retain her ability to have children and then began the process to treat the cancer. She smiled through daily injections and braved it through painful procedures. Radiation commenced 5 days a week for 5 weeks and she handled it like a pro, never complaining about the never-ending appointments and treatments.
Chemo tablets were the blessing we all wanted, this meant she wouldn’t lose her hair and wouldn’t experience the severe sickness associated with the intravenous version. From an outsider looking in, Shell was not a person fighting cancer, she never lost her positive spirit and crazy ways.
She would be treating patients at the hospital where she works and they would be none the wiser, it made me realise how many people I probably interact with daily who are fighting their own fight unbeknownst to me. I watched as Shell would boldly take on each challenge thrown her way, and what sticks out to me the most was that she never once felt sorry for herself or used her cancer as a reason to be miserable or treat people poorly.
She didn’t let cancer stop her from doing any thing she loved to do, she was still as social as ever and working as much as she could when she was physically able to. Her attitude during the cancer treatment juxtaposed against co-workers whinging about their jobs or friends complaining about their boyfriends gave me a new perspective. I was in awe of her ability to stay positive and keep going about her life as though nothing had changed, despite the fear, the pain and the unknown.
The first big surgery to remove the cancer and fit Shell with an ileostomy bag was an anxious time. For whatever reason my parents and I all thought this next step would be the worst of it, because hey, who wants to wear their crap on them like an accessory? The surgery went smoothly and thankfully the Surgeon was able to remove the 9cm long tumour successfully.
The stay in hospital was a learning process, as Shell got adjusted to life with the bag, and still she never complained. She certainly had every right to. She could have screamed, cried and punched walls and everyone would understand, or hell, join in! Not Shell though, she just sucked it up, got on with it and once out of hospital got back to normal life as much as she could. Christmas came and went, and before we know it 8 weeks have past and it’s time to say goodbye to the bag.
We were all excited on the led up to the second surgery, as it felt like the first step towards the recovery process. Another week in hospital for Shell, which means another week of stealing her hospital food for me (its really improved over the years!).
The aftermath of the reversal was quite a shock. No one really prepared Shell for how her body would be re-adjusting to her newly created colon and the days following her surgery were pretty gnarly. By this stage I think the previous few months had caught up to her she was ready to be done with the endless bathroom trips and a body that didn’t want to co-operate.
The reversal was a few weeks ago now, and Shell’s body is going through the process of healing from the multiple surgeries and radiation. Whilst she’s still on the chemo tablets, the worst of the treatment process is behind her. I can only hope she is soon able to heal emotionally from the trauma she has experienced, because despite her sunny disposition fighting cancer is scary and, I imagine, quite lonely.
That night I was told what was happening I started searching YouTube to find out as much as I could about this kind of cancer. A few videos into my search I discovered the Bowel Cancer Australia ‘Never Too Young’ series, and binged watched as many as I could. The women in these videos were exactly like Shell, and whilst their stories differed in some ways, knowing all these ladies had beaten the cancer and were now thriving in their lives, many still able to have children after the treatments, provided me comfort that Shell would get through this too.
Thank you for including my sister your Kick Ass initiative for women with bowel cancer. Shell is a kick ass woman in every sense of the word, she was before the cancer and she will be long after. Thank you for the support and the resources you provide and for sharing the Never Too Young message.