In April 2021, over the Easter weekend, I began to get very unwell which ultimately put me in hospital with as it turned out – sepsis! During the investigations as to why I was so sick, I had a CT scan of my abdomen which found I was suffering from diverticulitis but also recommended that I have a colonoscopy when I was better. I remember my father having had diverticulitis a few years before so didn’t think too much of it other than I best look into it.
Like a lot of 38-year-old men, at the time I did not have a regular GP so I went and found one. In a conversation that still rings in my ears to this day, she asked me if I wanted to go on the public waiting list for a colonoscopy or see someone privately. I knew the waiting times here in the ACT are measured in years and I didn’t want to make the wait longer for someone else, so I went privately and was booked in for one 6 weeks later. It still worries me that there are so many people waiting so long to undergo screening.
When I described my feelings of bloating, never feeling like I had emptied my bowels and ever-changing bowel habits, he thought it was likely a combination of not eating enough fibre and of course the diverticulitis that started me on this path!
By the time I had the colonoscopy it was late August. Immediately following it my gastro came over to me, sat down and told me that to his absolute surprise he found what appeared to be a tumour and quite a lot of polyps. That was a Friday.
I gave myself the weekend to feel sorry for myself, then the next week was a whirlwind of staging scans, test results, meeting my surgeon, work and the usual Dad stuff for my girls!
It was tough to process the news, as it felt like it was out of nowhere. There is no family history of bowel cancer, and I didn’t seem to have any of what I thought were the ‘classic’ symptoms. Telling my wife Rowena was a surreal experience. Due to the COVID restrictions in place at the time I had to do a few of the tests and consultations alone.
It was also very tough to tell my three daughters (then aged 6, 4 and 1) that I was sick although we did not use the ‘C’ word. My middle daughter asked if I had a weed growing in me which for someone so young seemed remarkable. So yes – I had a weed in me that needed to be taken out like we do in the garden.
The operation itself turned out to be a bit bigger than first thought and ultimately about ¾ of my large intestine had to be removed. Remarkably it was able to be done via keyhole and I avoided needing a stoma. I was up and walking the next day and the recovery felt quite good. Every step of the way I was told, ‘well you are so young compared to our other patients’.
After a couple of weeks, I got word that there was no evidence of spread in the 30 lymph nodes that were removed during surgery! They had caught it early – Stage 2!
As I was ‘so young’ it was decided that it would be best to undergo 8 rounds of oral chemotherapy. 2 weeks of 10 tablets a day and then a week off with blood tests thrown in became my life for around 6 months. I managed to continue working and my wife and I (well mainly my wife) were able to keep life pretty normal for our three daughters. I managed to get through 7 rounds before I developed a DVT and two days later caught COVID – my oncologist thought I was dealing with enough!
I am still undergoing surveillance tests and scans. Thankfully all the scans and tests since have been clear and my body and mind have been adjusting to the new normal. I definitely could not have got through the treatment without the amazing support of my wife, my family and friends and a supportive workplace. We also relied on some of the fantastic resources Bowel Cancer Australia offers especially the chats with a nutritionist.
I am very fortunate to be healthy enough now to coach my daughter’s rugby team and start to learn Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, a goal I set myself while doing chemotherapy.
My one piece of advice - Trust yourself when it comes to your body and ask questions.