health

'As a nurse, I dropped the ball on my own health. Then I was diagnosed with bowel cancer.'

Monday the 20th of August 2018 will be forever etched in my memory. Like a bad tattoo that you wished you had the foresight to not go ahead with, it will stay with me forever.

My new life began when I was at an appointment with my three-year-old son. I had a missed call on my mobile, and I instinctively knew that it was my GP. When I listened to her message asking me to come into the practice that day, I of course knew that she had bad news for me.

The facts on bowel cancer. Post continues after video. 

On the Friday prior, I had undergone a colonoscopy to investigate some non-specific intermittent stomach cramping, and some mild occasional stomach bloating and pain. I have no family history of bowel cancer or bowel disease, and I had no bleeding. But what I do have is a trust in my intuition, and my body was telling me that ‘something just wasn’t right’. I had recurrent niggling thoughts, like ‘I really should see a doctor about that bloating’ and ‘hmm, that cramping just isn’t normal’.

Acting on the symptoms, and a skilled GP assessment and referral pathway, has saved my life.

My amazingly talented GP (and guardian angel) had recommended the colonoscopy to ‘cover all bases’. Bowel cancer can be difficult to diagnose particularly in the early stage. Early bowel cancer symptoms can ‘mimic’ many other conditions including irritable bowel disease and food intolerances.

I must admit that even though I have been a nurse for 18 years, I never in my wildest nightmares could have imagined what has unfolded for me and my family over the past six months. How did I miss that I had something seriously wrong with me? Had I really been that consumed by motherhood, work and general life to totally drop the ball on my own health? Yup! I had.

After my colonoscopy, the Gastroenterologist who performed the procedure told me that he had removed two small polyps (a small growth of tissue on the wall of the bowel that are often harmless, but can develop into cancer). He said that he was “a little worried about one of the polyps”. And so began my new life as a mum of two little boys, a wife, a daughter, a friend, and a colleague who had bowel cancer.

LISTEN: The symptoms you need to look out for when it comes to gynecological cancer. Post continues after audio. 

We have all seen in movies or read accounts of how people react when they receive life-changing news that confronts a person with their mortality. Or some of us have family and friends who have retold their stories of being given ‘bad news’. What I really want everyone to know is that no one else’s story will prepare you for your story. And your story will be completely different, so please don’t try to compare. Your age, your pre-existing general physical and mental health, the current stresses in your life, your responsibilities (family, work, community engagements), your financial situation, and your ongoing support group will all have an impact on how you respond to your diagnosis and travel through your treatment or management plan.

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As I sat in the doctor’s office, I felt like I was sucked into a surreal reality vortex, and time just stood still. I will never forget the words that were said, how I felt, and my complete visceral body response. My three-year-old and 18-month-old were with me because I didn’t have anyone who could look after them while I went to get my results. Admittedly, I have a ‘need-to-know’ nature, and I could not wait until later when my husband got home from work. So as my boys busily pulled the clinical disposable paper off the examination table, foraged through medical equipment in drawers and repeatedly asked for a balloon, the doctor said to me “your test result is positive”. Let’s face it, it’s a phrase you never want to hear unless you are hopefully awaiting a pregnancy.

I asked, “positive for what?”, and was told “I’m sorry, you have cancer”. I looked over at my boys laughing and playing, and I could not believe that my world in an instant had disintegrated around me. I was so conscious of not distressing the boys. I quietly sat in terror, tried to cry discreetly (failed) and looked at the GP and said, “I have two little boys, what am I going to do now?”

I could feel the warm, caring and worried emotion coming through in my GP’s voice. I was so glad that she was the one who had ordered my tests and was there with me on that day. She showed genuine empathy, a skill that cannot be taught. She asked me if I had help and a supportive partner, because I obviously needed both. It was clearly and calmly explained to me that I needed an operation and an urgent surgical work-up. Repeat blood tests were organised, now including tumour markers. I had to have a CT scan to look for evidence of cancer spread (metastasis) and find a surgeon ASAP.

Being a nurse and lucky enough to have private health cover, I promptly decided that I would be choosing my own surgeon with the help of a few very special work colleagues and my mum, who is a nurse in another city (a good surgeon’s reputation will follow them around the state). As I left the GP’s office, the irony of how I’d put off my colonoscopy for about six weeks because “I didn’t have time”, was not lost on me. I certainly did not have time for cancer, but life can have a funny way of pulling us out of our daily grind to ‘wake us up’ and make us create time.

The days that followed the ‘beginning’ of my diagnosis were tough. I say beginning, as it was impossible to tell the extent of the cancer until after the biopsy results were available from the tests performed in the surgery. I found myself immediately going in to ‘project-management’ mode — project ‘Let’s Get This Shiz Over With’-mode. First, I had to tell my husband. How do you tell the man that you love, the father of your children, “Sorry hun, I have cancer, and P.S. I don’t know how bad it is”? How do you tell your parents that you have cancer? No parent should ever have to experience their child potentially facing death. Well… you just have to put your big-girl undies on, push through the fear and tell them. There’s no right or wrong way; it’s whatever works for you and your family.

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The mental marathon.

Although I knew it was unwarranted, I had this profound guilt and worry for those around me. The unanswerable questions and worries repeatedly raced through my mind.

‘How would my husband manage full care of the children and possibly me while I recovered… Wait. What if I don’t recover? How will he be able to work while caring for me and our children? Does he have enough leave from work (no he didn’t). Do I have enough money in my super, and will it pay off the house if my condition is terminal? Will I see my boys start primary school? How would they manage if my condition deteriorated and I died? I really don’t want to be a sick mum. How can I do this to my family? Other people ‘get’ cancer — not me. I’m lean, reasonably fit (lets call it ‘mum fit’), I eat relatively healthy — how did this happen? How will I tell my best friends? They have enough going on in their own lives. How will my already extremely busy work colleagues now take on my load? I don’t want to be dependent on anyone.

‘Gaah, what a complete an utter life disaster.’

And so my phone notifications began, sort of like when you announce your engagement or pregnancy — there is a notification hierarchy specific to your family, and you follow that. However with cancer, you also have to notify in accordance with practicality, and in my case, I had to notify my boss and my son’s daycare very early on. My wise surgeon told me, this is the time where you “phone a friend, rally the troops, and get people in to help you”. And I can tell you, he was so right. At many points, I did feel like I was in a battle, sometimes physically, sometimes emotionally and often both.

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For about five days, I would wake up every morning and have a split-second where I had forgotten our new reality. I cherished those moments. Suddenly, I had become one of those people that has a pre-cancer-diagnosis life, and a post-cancer-diagnosis life. This finally cemented into my mind when my friend from high school (who has had her own cancer experience), said something like “you will become less fearful as time goes on, but you will ALWAYS be a cancer patient”. And I do know what she meant. I will always be the mum that had cancer, I will always have a surgical scar, I will have a forever changed digestive system, I will always have cancer in the back of my mind and quietly question every new spasm, tingle and ‘funny feeling’. I will also now always look at life with new meaning, clarity and perspective.

I also started to wonder how cancer would affect future friendships and future jobs. What if my post cancer life has also given me the label of ‘potentially unreliable’ or, possibly worse, ‘fragile’? To many people this may sound superficial, petty or seriously low on the scale of current important issues. Of course my survival and my/my family’s wellbeing are the most important considerations. But cancer has caused me to examine and ponder every aspect of my life. And not necessarily for logical or rational reasons to an outsider.

Any unmanaged fears, worries, anxieties, health issues and old psychological wounds (that you didn’t even know you had) may surface during a life crisis. While this is seriously tough and honestly pretty inconvenient, I have found that by working on my mindset I am far stronger to tackle the physical upheavals. A special note to mums: you have grown and delivered a human, so remember that you have more inner strength than you every thought was possible. Call on that strength every time that you need it.

 

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The pre-operative tasks ramped up (purposeful mind saturation). I was bulk shopping and cooking, setting up direct debits for bills, talking to various government organisations to determine what support we could access, organising the house to be cleaned and for the garden sorted out, organising a Facebook group for post-operative updates, briefing day care so that my boys were given the extra TLC that they needed. Just to list a few. Just like life in general, if you feel organised and that you have ‘managed’ what you can, the challenges are more easily dealt with.

The surgical plan.

A few days after my initial diagnosis I was in the surgeon’s office and he explained that I needed to have a right hemicolectomy, which would mean a large portion of my bowel would be removed. I was told that it was a ‘big’ operation; I would need a week in hospital and we would not know the severity of the cancer until about five days after the operation. I would need someone to be at home with me for at least another two weeks after my hospital stay, especially since we have two young children. The tissue and lymph nodes removed during the surgery had to undergo laboratory testing. Risks and potential complications were explained including the possibility of a colostomy (which I have been lucky enough to avoid), and of course the risk of death. As with all medical procedures, there were risks with this surgery.

In that appointment, my husband bared the strength that I needed. He sat through the appointment with me and held my hand. He comforted me as I cried and explained (pleaded for help) to the surgeon that we have two very little boys who need us. He also asked the surgeon his questions, such as whether I need to go to intensive care after the operation, and he reminded me to ask about a particular drain that I was worried about needing after the surgery (my nursing background has proved to be both a blessing and a challenge). Having a loved one by your side during these appointments is so important. Even if you are fiercely independent and a ‘solo sorter’ like me, please ask for support. You do not need to do this alone.

After the appointment with the surgeon I felt like ‘the wind had been knocked out of my sails’, and I quickly worked out that I had been somewhat in denial. Although I’m a glass half-full kinda gal, I thought that I had been positive, yet not completely oblivious, to what the future may hold. It occurred to me that I was potentially sitting in the far-too-optimistic camp. Or was I? Perhaps I had just decided that I was going to tackle this, like every other life challenge, and do my very best to be fit and well again!

In reflection, I was so rattled because the surgeon stressed repeatedly that we would need a lot of home help, he was very clear that he could not tell me my prognosis until about a week after the surgery, and kindly pointed out that two weeks was an acceptable duration to wait for the operation, because “I hadn’t got my head around this yet”. He was of course right- how could anyone possibly come to terms with all that I had to consider, within a couple of days.

To read more about Sally’s journey, please visit her blog, The Awakened Mumma

This post was originally published on The Awakened Mumma and has been republished with full permission.

Early helpful resources; don’t do it alone.

Tags: cancer , features , health
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