I was 30 years, 11 months and 5 days old when I was diagnosed with bowel cancer. I was 30 years, 11 months and 7 days old when they told me it had spread.
I can’t say I had imagined being told I had cancer a lot of times, but movies and culture had prepared me for a moment that was totally different to my experience. Whenever the random thought did cross my mind, it was me sitting in a doctor’s office, across the mahogany desk and something along the lines of ‘We’re sorry, it is cancer’ after me finding a lump on my body. My experience was completely different.
In 2019, I started the year not feeling well. Coincidentally, in September of 2018 my husband and I commenced fertility treatment and over the next few weeks I started to notice I was more bloated than usual. I was having a few changes to my bowel movements, feeling constipated sometimes, sometimes having diarrhea. As I was having frequent checks in with the nurses, I often asked them if these were symptoms of the medication. Mostly they told me it was. Mostly they dismissed my queries and I never pushed it.
As a school teacher I am used to the heaviness of the term. Teaching Prep is a hands-on job and there is very little down time in the week. I would trudge along to work, feeling lethargic, emotional, uneasy but this was a part of the job. I had started to lose my appetite, opting for simple foods which might ease the pain in my tummy. By the time the year ended in December I was exhausted, but this again was not uncommon. A big year.
That summer I spent most of it on the couch. Unable to do much except watch ‘How I Met Your Mother’ on Netflix feeling utterly miserable. I would feel bloated and constipated until I needed to rush to the toilet. I diagnosed myself with IBS and began dismissing food groups. When we went to Perth for a 10-day holiday I was the worst company you could imagine. I couldn’t sleep because I was constantly needing the toilet. I couldn’t eat anything. I would take pills that would stop the diarrhea when we went on a plane or car trip but that only served to make me feel more constipated and the relief would never come.
Summer in Melbourne is wonderful time. There is excitement and buzzing and the new preps should have given me some energy. But I was so drained before it even began. On the hottest of summer days, I was dressed in a fleece, barely able to move from my chair and asking the students to wheel me around to sit in front of the heater. In a meeting, I curled up on a sofa, hoping for a few minutes rest and it was 9am. These are the last moments I had as a teacher and the memories that haunt me.
In the first week of school I was incapable of teaching. I was taking Panadol and Nurofen each day to help manage the pain in my tummy. The school nurse encouraged me to take some laxatives as maybe I was just really blocked up. She could see my distended tummy poking out of my slight frame. With encouragement I booked a GP appointment. I had to take a day off school in the first week to go and see her. I cried in the waiting room. The pain in my tummy so severe. She ordered me a CT scan and some bloods, plus a faecal sample. I was embarrassed by the idea of it. I went to the CT scan that afternoon and the nurse suggested that if I was bloated, maybe I shouldn't eat white bread. Unfortunately, a slice was all I could stomach at the time and had brought a roll with me.
I had started to feel relieved that night. At least something would be done this week. We could find out what was causing me stomach pain. The next morning while at school, the GP called and suggested I go straight to the hospital. The CT scan had shown that I was severely impacted in my bowels. She was unsure what was causing it, but it could be linked to my ovaries. My husband and I waited for a few hours, a few random tests, poking and prodding my tummy. It was awkward and uncomfortable. Maybe I was pregnant? Maybe I had a cyst on my ovaries? Eventually Michael left and I was taken to a bed at the hospital.
Over the next few days I was medically examined through every part of my body. There was a tray to catch my poo. Which was impossible since I was not pooping at this point. Still thinking I had something blocking my bowels I was given double enemas. Which were unsuccessful and resulted in me jumping off the bed and liquid dripping out of my bum. Fingers put up there to see if I had possibly lodged something (no judgment). Mostly doctors coming in and saying, ‘You look well’, ‘You’re quite young’.
Then came a very late night ultrasound on my tummy. A dark shadow appeared on the screen as she waved the wand over my liver. A moment of panic across the clinician’s face. Each day was more blood tests, more doctors, more silly sentiments like, ‘You look well’. ‘You are young’. ‘I’m your age’. ‘Must be the ovaries’. I felt like I was on show for all the specialists in the hospital.
Then, they decided to do a Flexi Sig. They gassed me up enough to feel no pain, but I could still hear the words I will never forget. I will never forget the look in the anaesthesiologist’s eyes. Or the look in the post-surgery nurses eyes when he gave me a tissue as I cried. Or the long push down the corridor back to my room. Or me coming back into my room and telling my parents I have cancer. Or when the surgeon came in with a group of other doctors, standing at the end of my bed, to announce to the room that I had cancer. Like I had won a prize. The look on my dad's face as he collapsed on me. My mum falling to the ground next to me. Shaking and crying.
That was how I found out I had cancer.