In Oct 2020 at 35, with a 2.5 year old and a three month old I was diagnosed with bowel cancer.
My symptoms started in late 2018, I was losing weight, had intermittent abdominal pain and was feeling very tired. I’ve always been petite but the weight loss became quite extreme by early 2019 so my GP referred me to a Gastroenterologist. Being a coeliac I assumed I was having a flare up. The Gastroenterologist recommended I have a Gastroscopy – this came back clear and I was advised to see a Dietician for weight gain. This did seem odd to me at the time but unfortunately, I didn’t question the Gastroenterologist. I continued to have a few other tests done through my GP, which also came back clear. Thus, I just tried to adjust to the fatigue and get on with life, which was wonderfully full and busy. By late 2019 I fell pregnant with my second baby and I remember thinking very early on that the pregnancy felt different, but I couldn’t articulate exactly why, I just had a feeling the baby would come early. Then at about 28 weeks pregnant, I began to experience excruciating abdominal pain. It would come on suddenly, double me over and then pass. My Obstetrician advised these were likely Braxton Hicks and to monitor them. The pains continued, and at 35 weeks our baby arrived.
Three months after our baby was born the pain returned one weekend so acutely that I booked in to see the GP first thing Monday. Bloods were ordered which indicated my inflammatory markers were raised so we did a CT scan of my abdomen. This showed some thickening of the bowel lining and was reported as likely ulcerative colitis. Luckily, I still saw a Gastroenterologist the following week for review and subsequent Colonoscopy. I awoke to the news he had found a tumour in my sigmoid colon and it was likely cancerous – I knew by his face that it wasn’t good news. Things moved quickly and two days later on the Friday I was meeting my Colorectal Surgeon, with my anterior resection booked for the Monday.
My surgery went very well, and my tumour removed. At this point in time, I was thought to be Stage 2, however my Histology did indicate an aggressive tumour. We sought multiple opinions regarding further treatment and luckily, I did decide to have adjuvant chemotherapy. Some doctors had suggested I didn’t need this, and I found the variation in opinion quite challenging at the time. I completed nine rounds of FOLFOX before heading in for my first PET scan and additional CT scans. My PET scan was clear, however the CT scan detected three small, suspected lung metastases. It goes without saying that we were all rendered utterly grief stricken and shell shocked, but we met with surgeons and gathered opinions to decide the next steps. I underwent two back-to-back bilateral VAT surgeries (minimally invasive lung resections). In hindsight these nodules were always present at time of my diagnosis, however had been missed due to their small size.
Following my lung resections I opted to have a laparoscopy of my abdomen, as I felt anxious as to where else the cancer might be hiding, despite imaging appearing normal in other areas. My blood work has never been abnormal, and the PET was clear so I didn’t feel I could rely on these to properly detect my cancer. We also learned that my cancer had the BRAF mutation, which is particularly aggressive and more difficult to treat. Fortunately, my laparoscopy was clear and I was advised to complete more chemotherapy – I have just completed 10 rounds of FOLFIRI + Avastin.
We are now back in the surveillance space and piecing together the next steps. All things considered; I have been mostly well. I have tolerated chemotherapy better than I expected and have not missed out on too much of life or hands-on mothering which was one of my greatest worries. I have also recovered quite quickly from each of my surgeries. I am indebted to my medical team, especially to my Colorectal Surgeon, Thoracic Surgeon and Oncologist. My Oncologist has always gone the extra mile to ensure I am well, and that we are learning all we can about my cancer and ways in which we can best treat it.
This is a very high-level summary of the last 18 months of my life, and I can look back now with a little less raw emotion and say that despite some very dark hours and days, there have also been truly wonderful days too. I am so lucky to have the love and support of my husband, parents, family and friends. This has given me immense strength and courage, but also the practical support to enable my treatment.
To those weathering this disease, have hope but grieve when you need to. I have found cancer can be as psychologically taxing as it is physically. The desire to see my beautiful young daughters grow up and be here with them for as long as possible is my driving motivation to do whatever I can in the way of treatment. I try to hold hope that advancements will continue to be made for CRC during my lifetime that will hopefully help keep me well. Having said that, my experience has shown that it’s critical we continue raising awareness in the general population, but especially in the medical community of the prevalence of young onset CRC. The alarming trend weaved throughout our collective patient stories are misdiagnosis (or absence of a diagnosis entirely), despite many of us presenting with common bowel cancer symptoms. I believe pregnancy to be a further complicating factor for young female patients and I desperately hope we can also shine a spotlight on this subset of young bowel cancer patients.