Starting a new year feeling great, after a long Christmas holiday, makes it very hard to comprehend what last year served up.
I remember thinking at the start of 2017 how excited I was about the changes that I had planned for the year.
I could never have imagined that a bowel cancer diagnosis would be on the cards and change everything.
I was 33 when I was diagnosed with Stage 3 sigmoid bowel cancer. I didn’t know anything about bowel cancer before my diagnosis, nor did I think my digestive problems could be because of it.
I was always bloated, had pains in my stomach all the time and various food intolerances (which I thought was the cause of all of this) and could never finish properly in the bathroom. After an eight-day stint with constipation in late April 2017, I had finally reached my tether and went to the doctor. They referred me straight away to the hospital that did the usual blood tests and x-rays.
They also gave me lots of laxatives to try get things moving. The laxatives didn’t work, and the tests didn’t show anything unusual, so I discharged myself. Two days later I was back after a night of vomiting and discomfort. The hospital sent me for another x-ray and then a CT scan. I just wanted answers, and for it all to go away but this trip to the hospital was only the beginning.
At 10:30pm the surgeon came to see me in ED. He said they had found a tumour that was causing the blockage and that it could be cancer! I have no idea what was said next, all I could think was ‘cancer’! How could that be, I am 33!’
I was booked in for surgery first thing the next morning, May 1 2017. There was no time to process my diagnoses, on the upside there was no time to fret about surgery. They cut out 20cm of my lower bowel including the 5cm the tumour that was causing the blockage. I spent eight days in hospital, my scar goes from my bra line into my public bone. I waited anxiously for the results of the tumour biopsy, I figured it was benign and all would be well.
On the second to last day in hospital in the early morning, while I was alone without my partner or sister there for support, I was told that the tumour was cancerous by a fill-in doctor. I was in such shock! I felt alone and didn’t know what to do or what it meant. The next day my surgeon explained that it was stage 3 and that it had spread to a few lymph nodes. I’d have to have chemotherapy.
To top it off, I had just been offered a job after months of searching. There was no way that I could work with what was to come. My world had been turned upside down, my plans for 2017 went out the window. I say that it was a life derailment.
My recovery from surgery took about six weeks. In the early weeks I needed help to get up and get around. I can’t remember half the things that happened during this time, it was a blur with so many appointments and hospital trips – my partner did propose though, I remember that much.
My first meeting with the oncologist we talked about what kind of chemo I would receive and how it was administered. I didn’t know that each cancer has its own chemo and various ways it is administered. I was told I was lucky as mine was a low dose and it should be smooth sailing (being the problem child I am, it wasn’t all smooth). We also talked about IVF and the options we had in case the chemo affected our chances of having a baby.
If you ever have to go into a meeting like this all I can say is take someone, you don’t hear half of what is said.
We decided to do IVF, we never wanted to look back and think we should have done it. I was also conscious that I’d be over 35 by the time we had a baby. You can’t go back in time. We had talked about fertility testing before the diagnosis so found the experience really interesting. It was also a great success with eight full embryos frozen – or eight freezer babies as we like to call them. No, we won’t be using them all!
A few days after my egg extraction I had surgery to put a port-a-cath into my chest. It is a small device that goes into your main central vain. It is where they connect the pump to administer chemo and all the prep drugs. You can see it under your skin, I still have it today (it will be removed when I get the all clear) and it still weirds me out! Chemo started the following week and would continue every fortnight for six months.
There’s a long list of chemo side effects. For me it was extreme fatigue and nausea that took over. I would go into hospital on a Thursday to get treatment and start the chemo, which I then took home with me in a bottle attached to my port until the Saturday when it was disconnected. It would take until at least the Wednesday to recover from chemo. I’d bounce back, feel great and then get really upset the following week when I would have to start the process again. Trying to get a job that would let you only work a for a few days a fortnight wasn’t an option for my profession. This took away a lot of my independence.
Other side effects that developed were numbness in my feet and hands. Initially this was only when they got cold but later in treatment and still now (chemo is cumulative and builds up over time) it is all the time. I’d also get mouth thrush – usually its mouth ulcers but as I said, I like to be a problem child and do things differently. It is the same with the constipation I had during chemo, it seemed like most went the other way. Loss of appetite was a big issue during chemo and the days after. I found eating a bit of toast to take pills would help but despite having steroids that are meant to make you want to eat, there wasn’t much more I wanted.
You have to stay on top of your anti-nausea pills. I did find yogurt and watermelon really good – the yogurt was more for my mouth as all the pills and drops to treat the thrush made me feel sick.
I finished chemo the first week of December, ticking off each round one-by-one. I am very fortunate that I have an incredible support network. I always wondered what my family would do if one of us had a health crisis – we lost my mum to breast cancer at the age of 38 when I was just 10 months old. Even from New Zealand, their support was enormous.
My friends rallied around me too. Sadly, I had two friends going through cancer treatment at the same time, but we all supported each other and shared stories and spoke openly, this was a huge help to talk to people who are going through a similar experience. You need supportive and positive people around you. I am so fortunate to have an amazing partner who was there for me every step of the way.
I have no history of bowel cancer in my family and it isn’t related to my mum’s breast cancer. I had a healthy diet. I wasn’t as active as I could have been and had been leading a busy life at the time of diagnosis. The tumour could have been growing for years, and there’s nothing that can be blamed for causing the cancer, it is sometimes just random. Cancer is like that.
I need to still have a few tests and scans before I am in the clear. Receiving chemo to make sure that the cancer doesn’t come back is hard and frustrating because you don’t know if you need it or not but the rates of it not returning after chemo are high and can’t be ignored. I developed the mentality of suck it up and just do it. I will have to have regular colonoscopies going forward to keep any eye on things.
I have heard from a few people who have been through cancer or had a close family member go through it that you need things to look forward to, to get you through the experience. I had a big holiday in New Zealand planned for the end of my treatment and Christmas. My partner and I made sure we had little weekends away between treatment to keep a bit of ‘normality’ in our life. I also got stuck into planning our wedding and we’re really looking forward to getting married in March this year.
There’s something that we all tend to do, and that is brush of things that are wrong with us, we let them become normal, like my constant bloating and sore tummies. This was just my body. I had tried to find answers before with no luck and I just gave up. I would say to others, don’t give up! Don’t let issues you have become normality. Keep searching for answers until you get them. If I had of persisted, I may not have had to go through chemo and that would have made the world of difference.