Friday 10th of August 2018 was an unforgettable day for me, the day I was told “You have bowel cancer”.
That morning, as my husband drove me to the hospital (for a sigmoidoscopy), I felt a sense of uneasiness drenching me. I put it down to the fear of needles and anaesthesia. I was changed into the hospital gown, and the kind and funny anaesthesiologist assured me that this is his day job and that I was in very good hands.
After, what only felt like few minutes, I was told that the surgeon would come and speak to me soon. A few minutes later, a group of doctors surrounded me. Their faces looked serious as I asked what’s going on.
My surgeon said, “Pera, I’m really sorry, we didn’t do the procedure. During the sigmoidoscopy, we saw a tumour, it was about 4cm large, the sigmoidoscopy was turned in to a colonoscopy to make sure that there weren’t any other tumours. I am really sorry to say, it looks like you have bowel cancer”.
At that point, everything felt surreal and life literally turned upside down from that moment on.
I was told that the biopsy results would be available on Monday. I was to stay at the hospital for a CT scan. That the surgeon’s office would call me on Monday to organise the surgery and I got booked in for a MRI scan the following week. Kind doctors at the hospital offered to give my CT scan results as soon as it was available. That night, I was told that the cancer was just contained to the tumour. Good news!
My surgery was organised to happen in two weeks’ time. After my MRI, I was told that it could very well be Stage 3 bowel cancer with a couple of lymph nodes affected. Things felt like a blur during those two weeks. With numerous visits to the doctors, I felt like I barely had time to feel nervous. I was 5”2 tall and 50kgs, so I was asked to try to put on a bit of weight so that I wouldn’t feel weak after the surgery.
Rewinding back a few years, I always had bowel issues, from a very young age. Even the odd occasional bleeding in my 20s, where numerous GPs told me that it was a fissure or
haemorrhoids. A possibility of a colonoscopy was never suggested. I had various intolerances to food and got tested for various intolerances, which all came back with negative results. At then end, I was told “just to avoid food that makes me uncomfortable”.
In September 2017, I noticed that my bowel habits were a bit odd. I had empty my bowels sporadically and noticed a pain on the right side of my tummy, and a bit of blood in the tissue as well as in the toilet bowl. Our usual GP suggested that this was due to stress and that yet again, bleeding was due to a fissure or a haemorrhoid (he in fact was so sure, he didn’t even want to check).
After numerous visits to him, he referred me to see a gastroenterologist. The gastroenterologist thought that this was due to the reason that I was under a lot of stress, the fact that food intolerances get worse when you are stressed, and the bleeding would eventually stop.
Then I got referred to see a dietician. I got given a whole lot of food that I should avoid. I’ve noticed that previously my bleeding would be on and off, but this time, it was there consistently, every day, with a severe pain on the right side of the stomach.
I had to see my GP again, I cried at his office, saying I was worried I could have bowel cancer. He reassured that this was nothing serious. Another week went by and I had to see the GP again, tears were pouring down my face as I told him that I thought something was not right with me.
I got asked to see the gastroenterologist again, she in fact laughed at me and said that people with my ethnic background, my age and being a female had a very low chance of it. She said she would put me on an elective list for a colonoscopy and that there was no reason to worry.
Meanwhile, my bleeding continued, my stomach pain persisted, and my bowel habits kept getting erratic. I kept thinking, three people can’t be wrong, that I must just put this aside. The stomach pain was back again, and I went to see the GP again. This was now becoming a weekly habit. The GP thought it
would be good to refer me to see a psychologist. I enquired about a scan or a colonoscopy and he said it was not necessary, that being on the elective list was good enough.
There were some nights that my heart was beating very fast and I would feel dizzy. Certain days I felt tired beyond comprehension. My husband thought that was not right, so we decided to consult our previous GP, who since moving to a different suburb, we hadn’t seen. He was concerned about my condition and got me to do a blood test.
The blood test showed that I had severe anaemia. He referred me to a colorectal surgeon and asked me to see him as soon as possible. Even he did not suspect that I could have had bowel cancer.
It nearly took 12 months for the medical professionals to diagnose that in fact I had bowel cancer. The surgeon and the second GP were very apologetic. When I got diagnosed, it was at the last stretches of Stage 3, with three lymph nodes being affected.
The surgery took almost 30cms off my large bowel and I was lucky I didn’t need a colostomy. First day after the surgery, a nurse took me walking to the toilet and it felt like I was learning to walk all over again. That night after the surgery, was the lowest I had ever been in my life. My bowels were out of control.
At the age of 38, losing control of your bowels for the first time in your life was enough to ponder the meaning of life. Since I suffered from severe anaemia, I got given an iron infusion.
When the surgeon saw me the day after the surgery, he said that since I was relatively healthy otherwise, my surgery was not complicated, and he assured me that I would bounce back quickly.
I was referred to an oncologist at the hospital and the first thing he said was that this cancer looked like it was about 10 years in the making. Five weeks after the surgery, I started adjuvant chemotherapy, I was put on the capox regime for eight weeks.
I would have the injection for over two hours, then I would be on the tablets for two weeks, followed by one week of rest.
Chemo was much harder than the surgery. Nausea, vomiting, choking like feeling, mouth blisters, dizziness, insomnia, sever pain and indigestion are to name a few. To top it all off, the depression that comes with it was very difficult to grasp.
I was told to stay active throughout the treatment cycle. As difficult as it was, I went for daily walks with my mum or with my husband or with my in-laws. I discovered meditation and used it as a step to sleep.
The nurses at my treatment centre was the kindest ever and I am forever grateful for them for looking after me and for the encouragement. It is been a year and three months since I have been off chemo, but the side effects are still part of my daily life. Neuropathy, ringing ears, and bladder sensitivity to name a few.
in July last year, I had my first CT scan after treatments, and I got the all clear.
Bowel cancer changed our lives up and down. I consider myself very lucky to have come out of the other end with “only a few scratches” and to have a dream medical team (after the diagnosis) and a very supportive husband, supportive family and friends and a very understanding workplace.
Bowel Cancer Australia has been an immense support, during my journey. So, I’m ever so grateful to your team and the dietician in your team.
I promised myself that when I was in a better mental space, I would raise much needed awareness of this. To anyone with a series of “mystery symptoms” like mine, you are the only one who knows your body better than any doctor. So do listen to your body. If you think something was not right, please don’t wait till it is too late.
If I had been diagnosed 12 months earlier, my treatment options would have been very different, and I have to say chemotherapy is worse than a colonoscopy or a surgery.