My story of bowel cancer is told to support and encourage everyone to complete the screening test that is sent to you for free in the mail. At the time of doing the screening test I did not feel unwell and was not aware of any symptoms. I have always been very fit and active, have never smoked or taken drugs and drink very little alcohol.
As well as having a very active sporting life, my working career has been active and mainly in the outdoors. After studying Recreation Leadership, I worked as an Outdoor Education instructor. I then spent 11 years in Adventure Travel leading rafting trips within Australia and organising overseas travel adventures. I then spent 15 years flying Hot Air Balloons over Melbourne as a commercial hot air balloon pilot.
Three years ago, I purchased a small business and continue to operate that business today. My sporting interests have included surfing, windsurfing and kitesurfing, triathlon, cycling and surf lifesaving. For the last twelve months I have been training for a 55km Ocean kayaking race in Hawaii with a squad of twenty other 50 year old guys.
In January 2020 I completed the home screening test and received a letter advising a positive result. My GP recommended that I have a colonoscopy just to find out if there were any issues. My GP had me do a blood test at that time and rang me back to advise that I had very low Iron and was almost Anaemic - and wanted to be sure that I had booked the colonoscopy.
I had the colonoscopy on February 14th and as I woke up after the anaesthetic the doctor explained that he had removed 14 polyps, there was a growth, and some lymph node activity. I was still a little drowsy at that point and did not realise that he was describing a more significant issue. He said that I would now need to do a scan, and I was wheeled around the corner in a wheelchair. When I saw the large CT machine and had to climb on to this machine for the scan, I was suddenly very scared as I realised that this was not part of a routine colonoscopy. Something was wrong.
The doctor rang me back later in the evening to say that the CT scan did not show any other lymph node activity within my body - so this was good news. By Tuesday the testing had confirmed that I had bowel cancer and that I would need surgery.
On Wednesday I met with the surgeon and he explained that I would have surgery to remove a section of my right bowel. This was considered one of the least intrusive bowel operations and would not result in my needing a stoma bag. The surgeon felt I was fit, strong and young and would cope very well with the operation. As the surgeon studied my file, he noticed that the CT scan had found some plaque on my heart. He was worried that this could be a problem and needed further investigation.
I needed to have an angiogram to investigate this area, and to ensure that I would not have a heart attack during the bowel surgery. If I did have an issue with my heart it could be fixed with a stent, but the blood thinners required for the stent would mean the bowel surgery may not proceed for up to 3 months. This was extremely distressing as I understood that the surgery needed to happen, and a delay just gives the cancer more time to develop. The angiogram found that I did not have any issue with my heart, but it did delay the surgery by two weeks.
The surgery was on March 4th - 15cm of bowel was removed along with 5 infected lymph nodes. The cancer was described as Stage 3. The surgeon and Oncologist said the operation was a success and they felt that they got all the cancer. I spent a day in Intensive Care and another 5 days in hospital. I recovered very well from the operation and was soon walking, eating normally and my bowel was working.
The Chemotherapy plan was 12 sessions every 2 weeks - so virtually 6 months. I was concerned that this seemed like a lot and may indicate I had a more serious problem. The doctor said that since I am fit, strong and young I would be given the Gold Standard of chemotherapy to ensure that I would be cleared of the cancer.
I have had a Port put into my upper chest and I go into the Infusion Centre every second Wednesday. After my blood is tested, I have a 2-hour bag, a 7-minute bag and then start a 48-hour bag that I carry with me for the next 2 days. I had worked right up to the day before the operation and had not in fact felt at all unwell until the chemotherapy started.
I didn’t feel great after the first session but have made some adjustments and now I am coping very well with the treatment. I have had very few side effects. I drink a lot of water or cordial and do a lot of walking and some other exercise. I feel like this is flushing the chemo out of my body and is helping me to feel good. I have had 4 sessions and the main side effect that I am experiencing is some Neuropathy - tingling in my hands and fingers. This can certainly be effected by the cold but as it is coming and going - does not seem to be a major issue.
In the days after the colonoscopy the mental strain was significant as there was so much new information and so much that was still unknown. I didn't want to talk to family or friends as I didn't know what to say and I was too upset and emotional.
The advice that helped me most in the early days was to break everything down into separate compartments - and deal with one thing at a time. For example, just dealing with the heart investigation that week that was all that mattered as the bowel surgery may be delayed and no one knew if there would even need to be chemotherapy so don't even worry about that at that time.
The other advice that has helped me and I continue to follow every day is to look after myself and to live well. I am making a great effort to drink and eat well, to rest and sleep and look after myself as well as possible. I exercise every day, spend time with my wife and boys and most days get in contact with friends. To run the business has been challenging - but it is just one of the compartments that has been dealt with. I do a lot of reading and listening to podcasts and actively work on my mental health.
The other bit of advice that has been important to me was to listen to the doctors and to do what they say. I am very happy to follow their advice and recommendations. Recently I checked with the senior educator at the Infusion Centre to be clear that doing an amount of exercise would not negatively affect my treatment. She encouraged me to keep exercising particularly as this has always been part of my life. She went on to explain that the chemo treatment will be going on for many months, and to think of it as over on the side as maybe 5-10% of my life - not dominating or defining me. So that is what I am doing - the treatment goes on, but I am living well and getting on with life.