I was 37 when I was diagnosed with Stage 1 rectal cancer. I had keyhole surgery with no complications, no radiotherapy or chemotherapy required. You could say I was lucky... but how did I know? Let’s just say I’ve been told the following news starting as a child and was fully aware of the signs.
“Your Grandpa isn’t well... he has bowel cancer” 1980s
“Your Nana” 1990s
“Your father” 2000s
“Your brother” 2010s
“Your uncle” 2010s
“Your husband” 2018
“You have...” 2019.
Our father passed away 4 months before our wedding. Our whole family was devastated. My mother and siblings showed love and strength by walking me down the aisle. Twenty-one years ago he was diagnosed with bowel cancer but fully recovered. He informed us all there was blood on his stool and he must see his doctor right away. He later passed from another unrelated cancer. This did later assisted our family members with one very important sign of early detection.
In June 2018, three months after our wedding, my husband started to complain of sharp stomach pain similar to that of kidney stones. He also experienced weight loss, and needed extra sleep, something wasn't right. After the first signs, he told the family later he had been bleeding for 6 months! It took a family discussion over lunch to finally persuade him to go to the hospital. We were told it was Stage 3 colon cancer and he needed a full colectomy followed by chemotherapy.
In July 2019, I was doing beach boot camp sessions and I was strong. I am singer-songwriter and part of my work is doing big physical shows. I had a new job close to home and less stress. Then a cloud came over me I wasn’t concentrating. I felt toxic, abdominal pain, irregular bowel patterns, infrequent bowel movements, small round stools, excess wind and was using laxatives and enemas at times. I would pee before bed and but still feel the urge to pee again soon after. I went to the ED at the same hospital my husband was in.
The doctor said “you’re stressed and I see you had an ovarian cyst rupture and shingles and changed your job. You’ve been through a lot.” Nothing was diagnosed but stress; no urinary tract infection, no blockages in the colon, nothing in the blood tests. I was sent off to do follow-ups with my GP. I could have fallen through the system as no one called me to ensure followed up with my GP. I kept going to the beach boot camp, working full time, caring for my husband and doing shows.
In November 2019, I went to the toilet and there was blood in my stool. My heart stopped – Oh God, not me! I was bloated and my stools had changed shape. The blood in my stools continued and two close friends asked me, “Are you ok? You don’t seem yourself.”
Australians aged 50 to 74 have a high risk of being diagnosed with bowel cancer (even without symptoms, family history, or precursor conditions) and they are urged to participate in Australia's National Bowel Cancer Screening Program. I was 37, I saw a doctor and said, “I have a family history of bowel cancer and I’m bleeding. Please arrange a colonoscopy.” It was arranged and I was offered a mental health care plan to assist with the grief and care.
It was the most important test I ever had. The doctor detected 4 x right colon sessile polyps, 2 x sessile transverse polyps and a small left colon polyp. All were removed successfully. Also detected during the procedure was a 6cm lesion, 8cm inside my rectum. Not Nice!
I was sitting with my mum holding one hand and my husband holding the other. My mum, who had lost her father, husband and witnessed her mother and son with bowel cancer and my own husband who had just had the same disease. It was an unspeakable moment, a journey they never deserved to hear or revisit again. I was sent for blood tests and my blood was good; I was sent for a CT scan. There was nothing alarming in other areas of the body. I was booked into a sigmoidoscopy after the colonoscopy. The surgeon wanted to book me in immediately for a major operation to remove the sigmoid colon and half my rectum.
I woke with only keyhole surgery having been performed and no stoma. The next night I was told it was Stage 1 rectal cancer but my wonderful surgeon had managed to remove it all. Nurses said being young and fit assisted my fast recovery. The pain was managed very well. I was home in five days and was fully recovered by six weeks. Over the last year I followed up with genetic counseling. Thankfully, I don’t carry the Lynch gene which you may have thought I would with so much family history. I have yearly colonoscopies now and regular appointments, blood tests and CT scans with my surgeon to avoid a recurrence.
I have had some discomfort following the operation and hope to be soon performing at full pace soon once more. The medical experience is one thing, but if I can give any advice to someone who is either caring or getting treated for bowel cancer is to support one another’s mental health and to seek help if you need it. Cancer can affect all those around you. We were very fortunate to have strong family and friend support base, an understanding workplace and the music industry offering assistance. Talking, warm hugs, good meals are all a must. Your GP and the Bowel Cancer Australia website are great resources and best for ongoing advice.
At my last scan (1 year recovery) six more polyps were found and removed. Follow-up checks are a must, bowel cancer is one of the most avoidable and easier to cure cancers; you are never too young to be screened.