I was 38 years old when I was diagnosed with stage 3B bowel cancer. I started losing my hair, so I went to the doctor to check if everything was ok. I was extremely iron deficient, so the doctor suggested I start taking iron tablets. The doctor also suggested I increase my red meat intake, which I did to 3 times per week.
After 3-4 months I went back to the GP to check if my iron levels were up and the doctor confirmed they were but suggested I keep taking the iron tablets for another 3 months as I had been very iron deficient. My periods were also very heavy but when I had an internal ultrasound, everything came back normal.
I still felt very tired but back then I blamed on being a mum with 2 young kids – I have a 4 and 6-year-old, and I work. I was also catching every cough and cold, my immune system was very weak. After 6-7 months of being on the iron tablets, my bowel movements started changing, but again nothing alarming. I didn’t have any blood on my stools. I had mild diarrhoea, so I thought it was the iron tablets. I stopped the iron tablets, but the diarrhoea didn’t stop completely.
I went back to the doctor. By then I had changed doctors and this doctor did a complete blood count test, stool and urine test. The doctor found a bacterium on my stomach, H-Pylori and prescribed antibiotics. The doctor also found that I was iron deficient again and recommended that I go back on the iron tablets. This was a year after my first visit to the doctor.
I felt good for one week after taking the antibiotics but then I had a few episodes of bleeding stools. This is when my GP referred me to the gastroenterologist. At the same time the doctor referred me to see the gynaecologist to check the causes of my heavy periods.
I was waiting for an appointment with the gastroenterologist and the gynaecologist but one day I woke up tired and didn’t feel like eating. Looking back now I feel I had developed more symptoms (i.e. increasing bloating, couldn’t eat much at the end, more diarrhoea) a few months before getting diagnosed.
I went to the emergency department because I felt I couldn’t keep pushing my body any further. After one hour of discussing my symptoms, the emergency doctor decided to do a CT scan. Initially he was reluctant to do a CT because I looked well, I was young, not overweight etc.
After the CT scan they found an intussusception in the sigmoid colon (closer to the rectum) and they also found that I was completely constipated on the right side of the colon. The emergency doctor was gobsmacked. He referred me to the gastro specialist who again didn’t believe I was a cancer candidate.
They explained to me that the intussusception could have been caused by polyps and worst-case scenario, it could be cancer. They talked about sending me home but by then I hadn’t eaten all day, and all that was coming out of me was blood, so I insisted on staying.
This whole thing happened during Easter. I was lucky enough to have had a doctor who specialised in laparoscopy surgery who looked at my case from home and decided that I needed an emergency surgery to take out the intussusception as it was most likely cancer. This doctor came in on Easter Monday and performed the surgery which went very well. He came to see me later that day and pretty much confirmed it was a tumour - stage 3 cancer - and that I would most likely need 6 months chemotherapy.
Two weeks later I met my oncologist who explained my treatment and side effects. Two weeks after that I started chemo. I felt nausea and tiredness. My first chemo session was the worst. My body felt really drugged, but slowly I changed my diet to a sugar-free, no processed food diet with lots of fruits, vegetables, legumes and some chicken and fish. I also started doing lots of exercises, walking on my worst days, riding on my bike outside and inside, exercising with bands and yoga. All of that has helped my immune system to feel stronger and has allowed me to feel better in each chemo session, if that it’s at all possible.
I finished 12 sessions of Folfox and I had all my checks just before Xmas when I got an all clear.
Many positive things have happened due to my bowel cancer experience. I feel like my world stopped when I found out I had cancer. It made me re-evaluate my life, how I have been treating my body and mind. I have always been able to push myself further. I have always strived to be the best at everything which I now know is not always possible. I thought my body was invincible and I thought I could just keep pushing my body. I also thought my mind never needed a rest which again I know now is so important. For me the biggest change was to stop, learn how to respect my body and mind. And slowly very slowly I am trying to live in the present moment.
I never allowed myself to search for anything about cancer on the internet as I thought I would never have cancer. I thought that people who were at the doctor for every little thing were hypochondriacs. I wish I had paid attention to all the signs my body gave me. I wish I had respected my body and mind more.
I decided to focus on the positives during this experience. I took the treatment as a time for me to learn more about myself, for me to look after myself. Funnily enough, I had never been so happy. I got to know who I am, I allowed myself to be who I wanted to be. I took each day as it came. I read books about nutrition, cancer, yoga, meditation. I spent each day looking after myself and focussed on doing things that were good for my body, mind and soul. It was a full-time job but one that was worth it and made me happy.
I was lucky enough to have my husband who was my rock the whole time. When my mind tried to go to places that it shouldn’t, he helped me to stay focused on the right things. I couldn’t have done it without him, so having someone you love, and trust is so important.
Fiona at Bowel Cancer Australia also put me in touch with someone who had gone through the same thing I was experiencing. I felt supported by someone who knew exactly what I had been through.
That made all the difference!
Find out more about Angelica’s story ~ https://angelicaalen.com/
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