Did you know that having a colonoscopy might not just save your life, but the lives of those you love most?
In 2012 I was in the absolute prime of my life. I was a vivacious young woman who had just celebrated my 21st birthday and travelled around the word for the final part of my Uni degree. Bowel cancer wasn’t part of my grand life plans.
I’ve shared my story previously - about how long it took to be diagnosed, how bowel cancer wasn’t a real worry despite my symptoms, about how isolating it was to be a young women with an ‘old man’s disease’ and about how incredibly thankful I will forever be that I was diagnosed early. But what I haven’t talked about is the long-term consequences - life after bowel cancer. It’s something I feel quite uncomfortable mentioning, as just to have a life is something, I feel very thankful about. But here I go... because life isn’t just about surviving, for me it’s about living with meaning and purpose.
One of the most shocking things for me post bowel cancer was having two fairly young female cousins also be diagnosed with a polyposis syndrome and having large portions or all of their bowels removed.
They had their scopes within a few years of me being diagnosed and in turn had their own lives changed. I can’t speak for them or their experiences, but I feel incredibly glad to be related to such strong women who were smart enough to be checked and so proactive about their health.
I am truly devastated that bowel issues clearly are a family health issue for us, and I can only hope future research finds a prevention or cure.
Sometimes I am really consumed by this anxiety about the future, not just about my own cancer coming back but about the thousands of other Australians who will be diagnosed.
That’s thousands of sons, daughters, mums, dads, grandfathers, grandmothers, aunties and uncles.
We need our government to fund more colonoscopies and earlier where required. We need people to actually use their free test kits when they arrive in the mail. We need to break the poo taboo and talk about bowel cancer. About ways to help prevent it, symptoms and how we can support those living with it.
I openly and honestly share my story with anyone who wants to hear it in the hope that it may influence just one person to talk about their bowel concerns.
As a result of my life saving surgeries, I’ve developed some further health issues - everything from chronic inflammation to a hernia - and I’ve had a bowel obstruction too.
One thing that 28-year-old me would tell my 21-year-old self is that you have the power to be your own best advocate. No medical professional has your lived experience of your body. Of course, take their advice but also don’t feel ashamed or scared to speak up when things don’t feel right. It’s so important that people with bowel cancer learn to advocate for themselves and what they want from their health care. Ultimately, your healthcare providers are part of your support team and you should never shy away from wanting personalised care.
Another thing I’d tell myself is to be gentle with my expectations of myself post cancer. I definitely felt the pressure to ‘make something of myself’ after being given the ‘gift’ of survival. This pressure can be crippling and unhelpful, especially when you are continuing to deal with health complications resulting from your diagnosis.
I am so humbled by the stories I hear from others who have experienced bowel cancer and am determined to never stop talking about the importance of early detection in saving lives.