I have always lived a very active life and been extremely proactive about my health. I have never smoked and do not drink alcohol. I did not tick any of the 'risk factor' boxes for Bowel Cancer, ie; lack of physical activity, a diet low in fruit and vegetables, a low-fibre and high fat diet or a diet high in processed meats, overweight, alcohol consumption, tobacco use and over 60.
I have always been the one in the family group who would choose the salad over the takeaway, the one at work eating something healthy over the hot chips and the friend who would go for a run or gym class instead of sitting eating cake and chatting (you get the picture). So, being diagnosed with cancer not only came as a complete shock to me but to everyone that knows me.
To give you an example, two days before I underwent my first surgery, I was in the gym at 5am doing a spin class, then worked that day. I even remember my lunch that day. It was a bowl of steamed vegetables and tuna. I remember because my boss was giving me a hard time, telling me to eat 'something decent'. This was a typical day for me, prior to my diagnosis.
My symptoms included random and unexplained stomach pain, fatigue, nausea and constipation. I had been suffering these symptoms for as long as I can remember but they really became more frequent and severe over the last 12 months. Unfortunately, I self-diagnosed and put it down to something I was eating or something I wasn't eating and or work stress related.
When I think about why I didn't act more swiftly on my symptoms I believe it was because I was always used to dealing with 'big things' in my work and my symptoms just seemed minor compared to what I was dealing with at work most days. What I did know was the way I was feeling really didn't match up to the healthy lifestyle I was living.
In March of this year (2022) I finally took myself off to my GP and asked for a full check-up. I underwent full blood tests and did the Faecal Occult Blood Test (FOBT). A couple of weeks later my GP called me to discuss my results. All three FOBTs came back with traces of blood. My GP was not too concerned as my blood results were good showing no real signs of ill health. I have since learnt that at no time did my blood tests show any signs of tumour or cancer markers, yet that is exactly what I had. To be on the safe side my GP referred me to a specialist to undergo a colonoscopy and gastroscopy. I did not make it that far!
In April I became seriously unwell with severe stomach pain to the point where I could not walk. My husband called an ambulance, and I was taken to our local regional hospital. I underwent a number of tests including a CT scan. Unfortunately, I was misdiagnosed with mild colitis, and I was sent home, being told it should resolve itself in a week.
A couple of weeks later the severe stomach cramps returned and were crippling me again. I returned to my GP who sent me directly to hospital, believing I was suffering from an obstruction in my bowel. Further tests and scans were conducted. It was a complete whirlwind. Later that evening my husband and I were met by what would become my surgical team. We were told, I had a large obstruction in my bowel which they believed to be cancerous. I was told I needed emergency surgery to open my bowel.
The following morning, I underwent surgery where the team inserted a stent into my bowel simply to open it up to reduce the risk of serious complications. I was furiously sick over the next seven days until I underwent a bowel resection where 30cm of my bowel was removed including one large tumour. During my surgery the required lymph nodes were removed for pathology testing.
One of the hardest things I struggled with during my Hospitalisation was the fact it was Mother’s Day and a few days later my gorgeous son’s 14th Birthday. As a Mother I felt terribly guilty for not being at home during these times.
On the 18th of May 2022 I received the call that no one really wanted from my surgeon. He advised that whilst the surgery was successful, Cancer cells had been detected in my lymph nodes, meaning the cancer had spread outside of my bowel and was on the move. The official diagnosis was stage 3B (T4aN1) rectosigmoid adenocarcinoma.
I spent only a little bit of time thinking 'why me' and being annoyed at myself for not getting on top of my health concerns earlier. I went through all of the 'if only I had etc'. I recognised very early that all of those negative thoughts served absolutely no one, especially my health and fighting this disease. I am a big believer that positive energy and thoughts go a long way to healing and staying healthy, physically and mentally.
In June I underwent a procedure to have a 'power port' inserted into my upper chest wall for my chemotherapy treatment. I started my chemotherapy treatment shortly after that. The plan is for 12 rounds of Folfox-Oxaliplatin infusions given each fortnight. I have not long finished round 8 and I am absolutely counting them down. I must say, the side effects have hit me harder than I anticipated. I make the most out of the moments when I am feeling not so bad and am learning to cope with the not so good days.
I have continued to maintain my health, fitness and good nutrition as much as possible during this process which I strongly believe has helped immensely, both physically and mentally. I learnt early that I could not and should not exercise like I previously did. I have learnt to modify and keep moving but also rest as much as I need to. These days, I do lots of walks instead of running, easy and enjoyable mountain biking instead of crazy trails and long meditative yoga which is my love rather than crazy hard hot yoga or inversion work.
I have had a couple of MRI's during this time as I have a lesion on the liver which has not been able to be characterised but on last review my Oncologist is mostly satisfied it is not anything sinister as there has been no change since starting chemo (which is a good thing).
My treatment is 'planned' to end at the end of November this year. My Oncologist has encouraged me all the way along, telling me we are working to become 'No Evidence of Disease' NED.
Being diagnosed with bowel cancer and now undergoing treatment was nothing I would have ever considered would have happened to me in my wildest of thoughts. This hideous disease can absolutely affect anyone.
On a positive note, being forced to slow down and not being at work has enabled me to spend more time with my family, including my 14-year-old son, husband and siblings. I have loved connecting with my siblings on a more meaningful level than I have ever experienced. These are just some of the good things that have come out of horrible situation.
Early on in my journey, I found the Bowel Cancer Australia support network. I reached out to the nurse in the early days and also the Nutritionist. I was so grateful for their advice, especially in those early days when my head was absolutely spinning. I also found the community Facebook group 'The Movement - Wellness Beyond Diagnosis'. This group has been a wealth of knowledge and support and I cannot recommend them highly enough.
At the end of 2019 when my very healthy big brother was just 53, he underwent a routine colonoscopy. Bowel cancer was detected and he underwent surgery. His surgery was successful, and the cancer had not spread as they had caught it early. He was very lucky. My brother also did not tick any of the risk factors and had no symptoms. With his diagnosis and my symptoms in mind I really had no excuse to self-diagnose and ignore the symptoms.
My advice would be, never self-diagnose and be a very strong advocate for your own health and wellbeing. Do not mess around with your health.