In September 2017, I was woken in the middle of the night with intense, burning abdominal cramps. My immediate concern was for my baby.
I was 34 years old and 15 weeks pregnant with my second child. I knew what labour pains were like, but this was different - high up in my stomach radiating out and down.
Reluctant to drag my 2-year-old daughter out of bed, I left her with my husband at home and drove myself to the emergency department, stopping along the way to open the car door and vomit into the gutter.
I was told by the triage nurse at ED that I wasn’t far enough along in my pregnancy to be admitted to the maternity ward and all they would be offering would be pain relief. Concerned about the effects of analgesics on my baby, I refused the drugs and took myself home.
I am surrounded by doctors in my family, including my husband. They all weighed in on my symptoms from that night as well as my significant anaemia. Stomach ulcer? Food intolerance? Inflammatory Bowel Disease? Chron’s Disease? An appointment with a gastroenterologist queried the same, however we all decided that investigations aside from ultrasound (which didn’t show anything unusual) should wait until after the baby was born.
Keen to stay fit through my pregnancy, I exercised regularly and met my also pregnant sister every week to swim laps at the local pool. I would slump over the lane ropes breathless and panting, only a few laps in to our usual 1.5km distance, confused by why I was struggling to keep up. My doctors were surprised that I required 2 iron infusions during that pregnancy.
My beautiful baby boy arrived in March 2018 with a minimum of fuss. He was a few weeks old when I noticed a large amount of blood in the toilet and in my poo but was reassured that it was most probably haemorrhoids following the birth. I was overwhelmed at the time with caring for my newborn, struggling with low milk supply and losing weight. It wasn’t until I had another episode of severe abdominal pain during the night that I agreed to go back to the gastroenterologist.
My son was 5 weeks old when a colonoscopy discovered polyps and a large mass blocking my bowel. He was 6 weeks when a right hemicolectomy removed 30cm of my large intestine, an 8cm tumour and 9 lymph nodes. By the time he was 10 weeks old I had undergone additional surgery to insert a porta-cath in my chest and weened him in order to commence 12 rounds of fortnightly FOLFOX (chemo) for stage IV bowel cancer.
I found my orientation to the chemo ward one of the hardest of my medical appointments. The blue vinyl recliners lined the perimeter of a large, stark, bright, bleeping hospital room devoid of any natural light or colour. My memory is of nurses, draped in full length white, plastic aprons scurrying between bays to administer and adjust the poison being delivered to grey, withered and unwell looking patients as they scrolled their screens or flicked through magazines. “This is a place that is supposed to make me well?” I thought to myself.
Six months on, I can still smell the antiseptic that they swirl over the nobbles of my porta cath before sinking the needle in, and I could heave. For the 2.5 days I was hooked up I didn’t feel too bad, I’d make an effort to go for walks to get the cancer killing poison pumping through my body, being careful to wrap my face in a scarf to protect my nose and throat from the tingling and tightness when breathing in cool air.
I also left various sets of warm and rubber gloves around; in the kitchen, the pram, the car and handbag and even the cool steering wheel, cutlery, taps or cotton clothes in the drawer would be sensitive on my fingers.
Unable to get my line and CAD pump wet, I’d take the opportunity to run a hot bath, light candles and put music on. Not as relaxing as it sounds when you’re sharing the tub with a 2-year-old, but she loved the novelty and we’d lie back together, and I would explain how the medicine was making the sickness in my tummy better. I was so conscious of being present in these moments with the knowledge that the days following the ‘unhook’ would have me exhausted in bed on my own for most of the weekend.
I am blessed to have the husband, parents and family that I do who were able to take over for me in these days, care for the children and tolerate the turned-up nose I would give to their nutritious cooking because all I could contemplate eating was hangover food.
You never mark off a calendar in quite the same way as you do when counting down chemo rounds, turning the fractions of each fortnight around in your head until the next one “3 of 12 down, ¼ of the way through, 25% done! The next one will be 1/3….” But the satisfaction of charging forward can be offset when treatments are delayed due to poor blood results as well as the conflicting feelings of wanting to savour every moment with the children and not wish the time with them away. My first baby, for the most part slept in her bed, my son has enjoyed most of his naps in my arms.
It’s easy to get scared of the stats for a stage IV diagnosis, but my recommendation would be to look at them and then promptly disregard them. They are not individualised; plenty of people beat them. In the end you’ll either sit one side of the fence of or the other and it doesn’t serve you to worry about them.
Early on, I booked in with a psychologist as a way of helping me to deal with my fears without burdening my family and friends who were already laden with their own worries. I grieved for the tremendous loss I felt when I stopped breast feeding, the distress of being separated from my baby for medical appointments and procedures, and the simmering anxiety that I may be taken from my children earlier than I had ever expected.
Although rarely a day goes by where it doesn’t cross my mind, as time has gone on, these feelings have evolved into a deep sense of gratitude for what I have and the overwhelming support I have received. I am incredibly fortunate and feel very optimistic about my future.