At age 41 years, I was about to be given my second cancer diagnosis within 10 years.
10 years earlier I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I underwent chemotherapy, radiation and a double mastectomy. I thought my cancer chapter was closed… No other health issues, we managed to have a beautiful daughter and life was good!
In August 2021 I started to get cramping, after a few days it was still there and a colleague at work recommended I should go see my GP. Off I went. I was sent for scans of my gall bladder and prescribed a number of stomach settling medications (buscopan etc). Nothing came back as wrong and I was just told to rest at home.
Nothing seemed to help. I presented to ED, bloated, unable to eat much and with diarrhoea. I was told it was gastro and to go home. I didn’t think it was gastro as it had been going on for weeks but who was I to know it would be anything bad.
I continued to have pain, bloating and started loosing weight. I saw GP but was told to keep walking it off to try and reduce the gas build up.
Woke up one morning feeling great, decided to eat something that wasn’t a spoon of rice (I had lost around 10kg over a 2mth period) but I started vomiting and I knew something was wrong… it didn’t seem like normal vomit, I realised it was faecal matter. My husband called an ambulance as I knew things could start getting bad quickly.
October 9th 2021 - admitted to ED, unable to stop vomiting. A Naso Gastric tube was inserted which didn’t help. Ultrasound and CT Scans were done showing a mass in my bowel. Surgery quickly followed the next day.
They were unsure what the mass was so they had to investigate and I was told I may wake up with a stoma bag. To say I was petrified is an understatement. I still didn’t think cancer.
I woke up from surgery, no stoma bag, but an incision requiring 30 staples down my middle. I had undergone a right hemicolectomy.
The day before discharge I was told it was cancer, stage 3C and I would require chemotherapy.
Looking back, although I had no real symptoms, I can pin point prior to August 2021, the symptoms I experienced between August and October were all bowel cancer text book symptoms!
So, I was sent home from hospital after a week, my wound had to heal first before I could start chemo. Community nurses came to assist and change my dressings.
14 days post op my staples were removed, the next day I woke up and saw that my surgery site had opened up… back to hospital for a couple weeks and finally discharged with a VAC dressing (most amazing thing ever!).
Again, this set chemo back as I needed the 7cm wide, 6cm deep wound to heal which took 6 weeks - this was not ideal, knowing the cancer had spread to some lymph nodes, I wanted to start chemo ASAP.
I needed a port inserted as it was explained to me that I would be wearing my chemo home with me for 48hours…I was scared about getting a port, don’t know why but I was. I knew it had to be done. Port inserted, no dramas, not sure why I was worried.
To add to the drama, I started to get cramping again. I was referred for an internal ultrasound and they saw a cyst on my ovary. My oncologist wanted me to undergo a PET scan to ensure it wasn’t cancer.
I started to lose the plot a bit now… all my hospital stays had been during COVID, so I was mostly on my own, no visitors and no seeing my husband or daughter for weeks… Gone from healthy, happy person to being told I have cancer again, having wound complications and now facing the prospect I may have cancer in my ovaries. I truly thought I was a goner.
PET scan was done and thankfully everything came back clear and I could finally start chemo the week before Christmas. Not the christmas present I wanted but I knew it was what I needed and I was so thankful that I only had bowel cancer and not anything more.
I had genetic testing done - no specific gene linkages to why I got bowel and/or breast cancer.. as the geneticist said ‘it might just be a case of bad luck.’
So treatment began.
I had 6 months of chemotherapy (12 sessions total) - oxaliplatin at the hospital then home with FOLFOX. I wore a small bottle home, which transfused in over a 48hr period. It’s amazing technology, the pump works by your body temperature.
Getting disconnected was the best feeling ever! You can’t get your port too wet, so disconnection day I would always go straight home and have a long shower.
My side effects were minimal (I felt). I work in aged care in an office based role and I continued to work through my treatment. I took days when I needed to rest but overall I could continue in my role. On some infusion days, I worked from my hospital chair.
I bought a sausage dog one day as well, while getting treatment, although not the most well thought through purchase! He has added so much joy to our lives! He also chewed through my chemo line one morning, which was not good!! Note - if your dog chews through your chemo line, go to hospital and get line disconnected to reduce any risk of infection :)
I had a chemo routine - my brother would pick me up after chemo and on the way home, we went for lunch, had a drink and put $50 in the pokies - you need to keep smiling. We did this after each session and it took away some of the seriousness of what I was going through
My biggest side effect was fatigue, I would get disconnected on a Wednesday afternoon, would be off my steroids by Friday and fatigue would hit on the weekend. Some weekends I would be in bed for the whole two days. I would usually start to feel better the middle of the following week. I learnt when I was tired, I needed to rest, no point over doing it
I did also have small panic like attacks at night sometimes. I took anti nausea medication and it seemed to help it. I didn’t get nauseated. I didn’t get terrible diarrhoea. Neuropathy also didn’t hit until the end.. I got through 11 of the 12 cycles of FOLFOX. I would get a few days each cycle of tingling in my fingers but it wouldn’t last long.
I’m now 6 months since treatment stopped and I still have neuropathy in my hands and feet. Something I’m just learning to live with - I would take my neuropathy over cancer any day :)
I finished treatment late June and I probably started feeling like myself again 4 months or so later. I was tired, I was having panic attacks (mainly linked to fear of reoccurrence) and just didn’t feel normal…
My oncologist requested CT scans and bloods 3 monthly initially. My first scan was done right after treatment for a base line
I have been off chemotherapy for 6 months and just had my third lot of CT scans and full bloods which shows no signs of further spread in liver or lungs. I’m off to see surgeon next week to book in for my 6 monthly colonoscopy. So things right now are good!
I do know that being Stage 3, things could change and it’s only early days since treatment ended but I don’t focus on that a lot. I am now seeing a counsellor to help me with my anxiety around reoccurrence, which I highly recommend!! Don’t struggle with your thoughts, talk to an impartial party, it can help release your stress and worry.
I am back exercising and not fearing what the next 6 months might bring. I say ‘yes’ much more and cherish my life.
For others on this journey, it’s not easy and it sucks!!! But, you can get through it and light can be seen on the other side.
Biggest lesson - your journey is about YOU. It’s not about anyone else. It is not your job to make people feel better about your situation. Whatever YOU feel, is justified. Whatever YOU want to do, is allowed. Do not feel guilt about saying no and locking yourself in your bedroom for the day. Eat what makes YOU feel happy, do what makes YOU feel happy. You are allowed to be selfish!!
Last learning - if you are getting treatment and you feel unwell (apart from normal chemo side effects) don’t wait, go to the hospital. Don’t try and be strong, just go, get help, as you can get sick quickly while undergoing chemo - the chemo nurses will tell you this, highly recommend you listen to them, they know their stuff!!
I am forever grateful for the amazing medical care we can access here in Australia. I thank my stars for those that cared for me during my hospital stays, while I was recovering at home and during my treatment. The chemo nurses are saints!!!
Cancer sucks but you can get through it, take the help and support and be kind to yourself!
Also, keep advocating for yourself, you are never too young!!