real life

'I thought I was just run down or stressed from being a mum. Then doctors found a tumour.'

This post is one person's experience and should not be considered medical advice.

For Melissa Laan, the signs were small and easily dismissed; an upset stomach, frequent trips to the bathroom, and problems eating some food. 

"I passed it off as one thing or the other like stress or just being a mum," the 39-year-old told Mamamia. 

Then one day, while working in administration at a Queensland hospital, she started feeling unwell. 

"Drinking water makes me sick," she told nurses in a passing comment at work. 

"That seems strange," they replied. "It's probably not the water."

Not thinking too much of it, Melissa, who was in her mid-thirties, brushed it off as she had done with other symptoms for 18 months. 

Little did the mother-of-five know she had a tumour in her bowel.

***

At the time, bowel cancer, which is most commonly diagnosed in people over 50, was the furthest thing from Melissa's mind. 

"I just didn't fit the boxes. I wasn't over 50, I wasn't overweight, I didn't drink alcohol."

Even when Melissa sought medical help after noticing bleeding, doctors told her "it's probably haemorrhoids". 

"I sort of felt almost silly for having wasted their time," she shared. 

It wasn't until she started passing mucus that alarm bells started ringing. 

"It got to that stage when I thought this isn't just a tummy bug or stress or a poor diet. I was finally at that point when I thought this shouldn't be happening."

Listen to Melissa's interview on The Quicky, Mamamia's daily news podcast. Post continues below. 

Melissa later presented to the hospital after throwing up what resembled Coco Pops. 

"That's where you're actually throwing up, grainy sort of coffee grinds sort of poo. [It's] pretty gross."

Doctors told her she had a bowel obstruction and would need to undergo a colonoscopy in November 2018. 

That's when they found a five centimetre polyp in her bowel. 

"At five centimetres, certainly there were concerns," she shared. "That’s where I started going to the place where I thought here we go, this is really bad... this is my last Christmas with my kids. You go down a bit of a dark path there."

Just two weeks later, Melissa had an MRI and the polyp had grown to nine centimetres. 

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By the time she had a surgery (known as TAMIS) to remove it in January, doctors pulled out a 26 centimetre polyp, which was confirmed to be cancerous. 

"It's scary to think how fast it was growing."

"At the time, it was the second largest tumour that they've removed through the TAMIS procedure."

Looking back, Melissa says if it wasn't for her treatment, she doesn't think she would have made it to 50 - the age when the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program sends every Australian a free bowel screening test kit. 

"Growing at that rate... no one can really say how much longer I had up my sleeve before things turned out very, very different." 

It’s why she says early diagnosis and access to screening tests is so important. 

"If it had been treated early, then it would have just been a polyp that they would have removed at the colonoscopy, and that would have been done."

Still, she's grateful she caught it early enough to have the tumour removed through a minimally invasive surgery.

It also meant she was able to make it back home for her children's first day of high school and kindergarten.

"I'm just incredibly fortunate that they got it when they did because once it starts to metastasize… it's a very different outcome with how much time you have to spend in treatment and away from family."

Melissa's five children aged 15, 12, six (twins) and five. Image: Supplied. 

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After the surgery, Melissa said the recovery was "pretty straightforward", however, she did develop a few additional complications. 

"I had peritonitis and as that sort of progressed, I went septic. At that point, my lungs collapsed and [they] popped me in a coma." 

After waking up from the coma a day later, Melissa discovered she had been fitted with an ileostomy bag, which was reversed after six months. 

"I think I had some of the only three-year-olds that could say ileostomy," she joked.

Melissa after her ileostomy in February 2019. Image: Supplied. 

The whole experience gave Melissa an entirely new lease on life.

"I just remember being in hospital and thinking if I get through this, I'll do something to try to make a difference," she said, explaining her decision to now work as a Senior Health Advisor at Central Highlands Regional Council in Queensland.

"When I had the Ileostomy, I was like 'right, what can I do?' It wasn't what I wouldn't be able to do anymore. I thought I'll swim, I'll get my truck licence, I'll go flying.

"I don't know whether it was for myself or for my kids, but I thought this doesn't actually stop me.... besides a few exploded ileostomy bags, which is not pleasant. But besides that, it really made me realise I've been given this new chance and this new opportunity."

Melissa learning to dive a truck in April 2019. Image: Supplied. 

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Last September, Melissa went back to the hospital for her final checkup and was given her five-year clearance. 

"They [the doctors] are satisfied that as long as I keep an eye out for any warning signs or symptoms, I don't need to have another colonoscopy for five years."

It’s these warning signs that Melissa wants everyone - particularly parents - to be aware of. 

"Parents really need to put their health as a priority.... As parents, we almost pride ourselves on running on empty, and it's particularly dangerous with certain illnesses where time makes a difference."

"If I hadn't been so embarrassed and if I hadn't been so preoccupied with everything else, then I could have got treated perhaps even sooner."

The 39-year-old also wants to see the government provide bowel cancer testing kits at an earlier age or make them cheaper to access so young people can get diagnosed sooner. 

"It's just unfortunate that we still take the stand that bowel cancer is an older person's illness.

"If there was more awareness that young people can get bowel cancer too, more of us could possibly get treated sooner and there'd be a lot less disruption through the late diagnosis, which affects whether you're going to be spending a lot of time in the hospital or just a checkup every five years."

Feature Image: Supplied.

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