In June 2015, my brother Andrew was treated for diverticulitis (with antibiotics), a condition where pockets that develop in the lining of the intestine become infected or inflamed. A few years prior, he was hospitalised for over a week with similar symptoms, these included severe pain in the abdomen.
In September 2015, the pain had never really subsided. His doctor suggested he get an ultrasound.
They discovered a large grey mass, which turned out to be a tumour between his large and small intestine, so it was determined he would require surgery.
I think we all assumed Andrew was going to be ok. They were going to remove the tumour, he’d have some treatment and he’d be ok.
I’ll never forget the call from the surgeon that followed.
“It’s stage 4 bowel cancer,” the surgeon said, “it has spread into his liver and blood.”
I struggle to put into words how I felt when I heard those words. It was so sudden. He wasn’t even 40. We didn’t even have a history of cancer in our family. How could this happen?
All I remember feeling is incredibly lost. My knees buckled, I wanted to collapse, but knew I couldn’t, I wasn’t the one with the disease, so I felt I had no right to feel anything. I had to be strong.
Andrew had the KRAS mutation, which meant two of the common chemotherapy treatments would not be effective, but there were other options. Although he was stage 4, there was a small possibility that he could continue to live ‘normally’ by taking chemo every day.
Not knowing where to turn, I jumped online and discovered Bowel Cancer Australia’s Peer-to-Peer Network and their Nurse helpline which wasn’t just for patients. Their nurses were second-to-none. Whenever I was at my lowest and most needed someone to chat to, I seemed to receive a phone call. It’s as if they knew when to check in on how I was feeling, how Andrew was, how my family was.
As part of Bowel Cancer Australia’s Peer-to-Peer Network, I was connected with another person going through a similar experience, which was great. Although we never had any answers for each other, just getting all this stuff off our chests and sharing what was going on was therapeutic.
Andrew knew from the beginning that his cancer was terminal, but he never complained or felt sorry for himself. I promised I’d be there – when he needed me the most, and at the very end – and I was. It was the most bittersweet time of my life. Now, when I wake up each morning, for a split second I wonder whether this was all a dream – then I realise, it wasn’t. Some days are great, other days all I want to do is cry.
Knowing that my brother, Anthony’s kids won’t remember their Uncle Andrew is heart breaking and I know it saddens Anthony. Neither Mum nor Dad like burdening people with their feelings or emotions, but Mum keeps waiting for Andrew to walk in the door and say he’s back from a long trip or somewhere. I believe the more you reach out for support the better, so I’ve encouraged them to contact Bowel Cancer Australia, like I did.
Life for us now is about finding our new normal – as individuals and as a family – which, over time we are doing.
This disease doesn’t discriminate. You’re never too young – so my mission now is to make as many people aware of bowel cancer as possible. It’s time to spread the word!