I’m just like most mums – juggling work, family and trying to keep fit.
In 2016 I was running four days a week and doing two-hour Pilates classes. I was healthy – or so I thought – running my own business and mother to two beautiful children – a three-year-old and 18-month-old. Then in an instant everything changed.
In March of that year I had food poisoning, then a few months of varying degrees of constipation. But as busy mums do, I put off going to the doctor. My life changed dramatically when I was rushed to emergency surgery to relieve my obstructed bowel that has distended to seven centimetres. I was diagnosed with stage 4 bowel cancer.
Suddenly the amazing life I had created was threatened.
Disbelief hit more than anything. I assumed people diagnosed with bowel cancer were really unwell before their diagnosis, lose a lot of weight, are unable to get out of bed… but that’s not often the case. In fact the disease can often show no obvious symptoms. Here I was fairly healthy, and suddenly I was given an expiration date.
Nothing will ever prepare you to hear the words, ‘You have six months to two years left.’ I was recovering at my parents house from the emergency surgery when I received the phone call from the colorectal surgeon.
Surrounded by family who were so distraught at the news of my diagnosis and prognosis I found myself trying to comfort and reassure them. I had to be the strong one even though I knew nothing about bowel cancer and the impact it was about to have on my life.
Over the past 22 months I’ve endured five surgeries, had two temporary stomas and chemotherapy where after a two-hour drive to the cancer clinic, I sit in a chair for 10 hours while poison is pumped into my body to kill the cancer. It takes a huge toll on our lives.
We are incredibly lucky as the army of support we have is formidable. Our girls get to have a sleepover with their best friends once a fortnight and we are so lucky to have friends who have become family.
The taboo cancer.
Bowel Cancer is such a taboo cancer to have. Who wants to talk about poo? The stigma around having a stoma was hard. I owned it, because I had to. Even my husband found it difficult to be intimate to start with. My kids thought it was curiously gross to poo out of my tummy. I have had that reversed now and my bowels are back to normal and working well. But I have been lucky. So many living with bowel cancer have to plan their lives around bathrooms. It would be incredibly debilitating.
Bowel Cancer is the second biggest cancer killer yet if it is detected early it can be successfully treated in 90 percent of cases. Early detection wasn’t an option for me but for people aged 50-74 a free bowel cancer screening kit is sent to their home. It’s a non-invasive test and takes just three minutes to do. Unbelievably only 41 percent of eligible Australians take the test. If only they knew what could be ahead for them they’d be lining up at their letterbox waiting for the test to come! Eighty Australians are diagnosed with bowel cancer each week and once you turn 50 the risk of bowel cancer increases.
Since the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program (NBCSP) began in 2006, 4.4 million screening tests have been completed and in 2016 59,000 received a positive test result requiring further medical assessment.
If screening participation can be increased to 60 percent across Australia, nine lives can be saved every single day.
Leading researchers at Sydney’s Liverpool hospital say it’s now evident a first degree family history of bowel cancer increases the risk of developing bowel cancer. This recognition has led to a screening programme of family members aimed at early diagnosis and treatment.
Surgery for bowel cancer has seen significant changes, many of which have been driven and confirmed by clinical and academic research of the colorectal units in South West Sydney Local Health District. Surgeons there have contributed to the international development of minimally invasive, (keyhole) surgery for bowel cancer, which has seen patients treated with minimal scars, early recovery and return to normal activities.
A new technique, Natural Orifice Transluminal Endoscopic Surgery (NOTES) is being developed by these surgeons at SWSLHD. This technique aims at a scar-free operation in some selected patients - a world leader in this medical development.
I still don’t believe stage 4 automatically translates to death sentence, but it’s a much longer, more gravely road than stage 1, 2 and 3. And given a choice it would be a road no one would choose to travel.
Positivity is the key to my ability to get on with my life. Cancer and treatment sit there, just in the back of my mind while I go about bringing as much normalcy as I can to each day. I don’t think about it everyday. I have too much life to live. My life is out in front of me, so it’s sometimes easy to forget about the cancer. I am fit and otherwise healthy and unless recovering from surgery, I do regular Pilates and yoga.
My life has changed in that I appreciate every single minute of every single day. I find myself not wishing life away. I don’t say no to things. I live my life. I try to keep it as normal as I possibly can for our little people and for my husband and for me. And I don’t sweat the small stuff.
My mantra has become – Life is for Living!
For more information about the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program, visit the website or call the infoline on 1800 118 868.