In medical school I was taught the symptoms of bowel cancer early on in my training. I also learned that bowel cancer is a disease of the middle aged.
I was told that anyone in their 50’s onwards with stomach or back pain, loss of weight, change in appetite or bowel habit, nausea, fatigue, sweating at night or bleeding should be investigated.
When I developed these “red flags” at the end of my first year as a doctor, I was quick to explain them away. My pain was due to exercise, the fact that I was so tired I couldn’t make it through a patient interview without sitting was because I was working shifts, my night sweats were because my house didn’t have air conditioning.
Eventually I could no longer stand the pain and I saw my GP who referred me for an ultrasound. The results of this scan were abnormal so the radiologist present asked me to have a CT scan. I didn’t wait to deliver the reports to my GP but ripped the envelope open on the street corner.
Sentences like “multiple lesions scattered throughout the liver” and “possible liver cancer” leapt out. I was supposed to work the evening shift in the Emergency Department that afternoon so I called my boss and asked for the afternoon off to follow up with my GP.
I was lucky and my boss got me an appointment for the next day with a surgeon who immediately admitted me to hospital for a laparoscopic biopsy and colonoscopy. My parents, who I had not seen for several weeks, travelled 2.5 hours to see me at the hospital. I later found out that they thought I was going to die, I was so thin and in constant pain.
What they can’t teach you in medical school is how it feels to be told that, at 31, you have metastatic bowel cancer. That the secondary tumour in your liver is so large it has prevented blood flow and parts of your liver are dying. My oncologist wanted to start me on chemotherapy immediately. The day this was meant to happen there was a bomb scare at my hospital, luckily my ward was not evacuated but it was a close thing.
Chemotherapy is exhausting. I have had to stop work because it would be irresponsible to treat patients while dealing with chemo brain. My mother spends 1 week in 2 caring for me while I am having treatment.
I don’t know how long I have to live but I am hoping for the best. I want to find a way to combine my medical training with my condition and help others who are in a similar situation.