I was 28 years old when I received a phone call I will never forget: "Emma, you need to see your Doctor today, and your Doctor has asked that you bring a support person with you." That was February 22, 2018. That phone call triggered a whirlwind of scans and procedures that led to my diagnosis - Stage IV Colorectal Cancer.
A 7cm tumour in my bowel, a 4cm tumour in my liver and surrounding lymph nodes affected. We had been married just over a year when I was diagnosed and had our whole lives ahead of us. Stage IV was a frightening place to find ourselves in.
The only reason I had undertaken some blood tests in October 2017 was because I am incredibly organised and wanted to ensure my health was in good shape before we started thinking about starting a family. In addition, in November and December 2017 I had two very strange days where I could not get out of bed - I was absolutely exhausted. As many do, I put this down to my 4hr/day commute to work and burning the candle at both ends during my 20s. I also had some odd bloating every now and then, and again put this down to stress and too much pasta!
Within two weeks of diagnosis I was scheduled for surgery to insert the Port-a-Cath, and to my complete horror, an Ileostomy. At the time I had no idea what a stoma was - finding out the reality of what that would mean was so awful. I was so very sick after that surgery. The stoma did not work for days, I lost about 10kgs and was in hospital for over two weeks. It was a debilitating start to my cancer journey, and I hadn't even started the terrifying part that is chemotherapy. Eventually I made peace with the stoma knowing it had saved a potentially fatal blockage, but I didn't tell anyone other than close family members and close friends. I was so embarrassed by it.
I had two rounds of chemotherapy that started to slowly shrink the tumours, with thankfully little to no side effects. My oncology team was an amazing support during these times when I did not feel strong. Soon enough I was bringing my laptop to the clinic and on conference calls while hooked up to my chemo!
My fight to survive had kicked in. A decision was made to change the combination when tests showed the tumours weren't responding as well as hoped and try a different combination of drugs. This turned out to be the right decision as my tumour markers started trending downwards, and planning began for my peritonectomy. This is a very serious, complex, and very lengthy surgery. The lead up was very confronting and involved weeks of preparation. Whilst the chemotherapy was working its magic, there was every chance that it may be a different picture when they opened me up.
There was also a chance that I could lose my ovaries in the surgery, and if there was cancer on or near to an organ it would be taken - taking a kidney looked like another likely outcome. Thiswas a reality I was accepting of - I chose life. As a newly married 28-year-old, the chance that I may wake up without my ovaries was overwhelming. Before the surgery we arranged to have some of my ovarian tissue frozen just in case.
The peritonectomy in August 2018 was a huge success. I lost part of my bowel, liver and surrounding lymph nodes. I lost my spleen and gall bladder. Whilst there were some very traumatic days in recovery, and some uncomfortable side effects of the final round of chemotherapy as a follow up, I sit here in May 2020 so incredibly grateful for the gift of life that my oncological and surgical team have given me.
With scans every 3 months, and ongoing monitoring I touch every piece of wood around me and am grateful for no recurrence. I reflect every single day how lucky we are in Australia to have an outstanding health system; one where I felt looked after every step of the way.
As a 30 year old, two years down the track from that never to be forgotten call, and whilst the scars are still there (they reversed the ileostomy during the peritonectomy which I am so very grateful for, and my ovaries are intact), I am so positive about making the most out of life and want to support those going through bowel cancer in whatever way I can. I have learned a great deal about myself through this but could not have done so without the incredible support I have had from my husband, family, and friends.
It was only late in 2019 as I had returned to life in fast forward, running at a million miles again, that I realised there were many unresolved psychological scars that needed to be discussed. I sought out the help of a professional and benefited from their advice and safe space to work through the pain that I had clearly not dealt with. The body and mind are fascinating - they protect you from the memories of fear and trauma so you can just push through. When I was mentally strong enough to confront it, I was able to in many counselling sessions.
My advice to others who have been through their own journeys, would be to have an openness to be vulnerable around your pain and suffering. The scars both physically and mentally will always be a part of me as a daily reminder, but I am stronger for it.