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Vanessa noticed there was blood in her stool. She knew it wasn't a good sign.

Over the past three decades, there has been a 266 per cent increase in bowel cancer incidence rates in adolescents and young adults.

Some who have been diagnosed survived against the odds. Others sadly lost their lives. Behind the overwhelming amount of diagnoses are thousands of everyday Australians.

Vanessa Medico is one of these people. 

In 2022, Vanessa was diagnosed with stage three bowel cancer. She was just 28 years old.

Watch: Jodi's story, from the Jodi Lee Foundation, a charity that aims to empower people to take active steps to prevent bowel cancer and live healthy lives. Post continues below. 


Video via Mamamia. 

"Now knowing about the symptoms of the disease, it was probably in 2021 when I started not feeling very well and noticing my health wasn't quite right," the Bowel Cancer Australia advocate tells Mamamia.

"I was really fatigued, abnormally bloated, I'd lost a bit of weight and my bowel movements were super regular. At the time I just assumed that meant I was healthy, but it was definitely on the too many times side of the scale. 

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In February 2022, Vanessa then noticed there was blood in her stool. She had a feeling it wasn't a good sign.

"I remember my dad had once said to me, 'If you ever notice blood in your poo, that is not normal and you need to get it checked immediately.' His words rang in my mind so I began the process of trying to get a colonoscopy. I was really advocating and pushing for the procedure to take place, presenting at hospital when I noticed the blood."

It wasn't until June that Vanessa's colonoscopy took place. Straight after her procedure, she was given the devastating news. 

"I was sitting in the hospital bed after the colonoscopy and everyone around me who had also undergone the same procedure throughout the day were being told they could go home. I was one of the last ones left, and so I asked the nurse if I could leave too, and they said, 'The doctor needs to speak to you.' I figured it was quite weird, it hadn't hit me yet," says Vanessa.

At this same moment, Vanessa's emergency contact — her boyfriend at the time — had been contacted and told he ought to come into the medical facility as "your partner is going to need you".

"In the hospital my boyfriend and I walked through adjacent doors to get to the doctor's office and we came face to face. As soon as I saw his face, I knew things were bad."

At the time, Vanessa knew nothing about the disease. All she knew was that before her colonoscopy, she had been at the hospital's bathroom facilities and on the back of the bathroom door had been a sign telling Aussies over the age of 60 to get tested for bowel cancer.

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It's a common misconception that bowel cancer is 'an old person's disease', but the reality is that a significant number of young Australians are being diagnosed with bowel cancer, like Vanessa. 

Vanessa was diagnosed with bowel cancer when she was just 28 years old. Thankfully now, she has been told there's no evidence of bowel cancer in her checkups now. Image: Supplied. 

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Although the majority of newly diagnosed bowel cancer cases occur in people aged 50 years and over, around one in nine Aussies diagnosed with the disease are under the age of 50. 

Bowel cancer is the deadliest cancer for Australians aged 25 to 44. Annika Harrison is sadly one of the many people behind this statistic.

In May 2023 at the age of 42, she passed away. She had been diagnosed six years earlier with the disease, Annika leaving behind her three children who she cherished, says her best friend Charlie.

"12 months prior to her passing, she was told there just weren't any treatment options left. She had fought so hard, tried everything, done chemotherapy, and to be told she was out of options was just devastating," Charlie tells Mamamia.

"I'll never forget the day she came into my office at work and told me the news. Myself and a few of her other close friends then launched a GoFundMe page to try and give her as much opportunity as possible to spend quality time with her kids. They did bucket list things together like going overseas. She just adored those kids so much."

Annika had touched the lives of so many.

Her former place of work, University of Wollongong, created Annika's Scholarship to honour her life and work, and to give all students the access to education they deserve. Annika's loved ones also celebrated her birthday shortly after her passing with a Celebration of Life service.

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"She was so positive, the one who always grounded all of us. She loved having people over and entertaining with food at her home. She'd pack the kids up and take them on holidays at any opportunity she had. Annika was such a wonderful mum," says Charlie.

"Before she died, she sat us friends down and said she wanted us to speak about bowel cancer as much as possible when she was gone. She wanted us to get the word out about testing. It's a promise I've kept and always will. Screening and knowing the symptoms can save lives."

Annika (left) with best friend Charlie (right). Image: Supplied.

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Dr Penelope De Lacavalerie is a Consultant Colorectal and General Surgeon in Sydney. Speaking with Mamamia, she says it gives her chills every time she speaks to young patients who have bowel cancer.

"At these ages, they're really just starting their lives, they have young families, they might be going through finances to buy their first house. Cancer is terrible at any age, and I do not want to diminish the diagnosis for any age group. But with this cohort in particular, it's really important we have this conversation and increase awareness," she notes.

As for what has contributed to this rise in cases among young people, Dr De Lacavalerie says scientists are still trying to work out the cause.

Some things to consider though include family history, the change in our diets widely as a society over the past 30 years (more processed, red meat-based meals) and high antibiotic exposure in childhood.

When it comes to the symptoms to be aware of — Dr De Lacavalerie explains. 

"Think of the word 'BOWEL'. B is for blood in your stool. No blood in your stool is ever normal, and needs immediate medical attention. O is for obvious changes in your bowel habits, whether you're more constipated or have diarrhoea. W is for unexplained weight loss. E is for extreme tiredness for no reason. And lastly L is for lumps, swelling or bloating in your abdomen," says the Bowel Cancer Australia spokesperson.

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"If any of these symptoms persist for more than two weeks, you should see your GP specialist."

Right now, Vanessa feels hopeful about her future.

Before she began her chemotherapy, Vanessa underwent IVF egg freezing just in case the treatment impacted her fertility. She also had surgery to remove the tumour in her bowel, and received an ileostomy, a surgery that changes the way your stool exits the body temporarily. She then had a reversal surgery once her bowel had healed post-treatment.

Throughout that time of treatment, Vanessa says her friends were amazing and my family were also really present despite everything going on — on her first day of chemo, her aunty passed away from ovarian cancer. Two months later, her mum was then diagnosed with endometrial cancer.

Vanessa ended up splitting from her boyfriend at the time, after finding out he had been cheating on her while she was receiving chemo. 

"I realised I'm a lot stronger than I give myself credit for," she tells Mamamia

For over a year now she has been told there's no evidence of the disease in her body. From the five-year mark she will then be able to say she's in remission if there continues to be no evidence of bowel cancer.

Vanessa says she feels incredibly lucky to have her life, considering the odds she was facing. But as a survivor, it's a complicated experience, Vanessa saying she reflects often on the people who have lost their lives to bowel cancer.

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"When I was going through chemo, I connected with some many young people who also had the disease. I started sharing my experience, as did they, and I made some really lifelong friends. Unfortunately, I've had some friends pass away from that community too.

"There's really big survivor's guilt. Sometimes you wonder, 'Why was it not me?' But I guess that's why I talk about my story to anyone who will listen. I want to keep working in this space because the statistics are rising and early detection is life-saving."

With June being Bowel Cancer Awareness Month — Bowel Cancer Australia's signature event to raise awareness of Australia's second deadliest cancer — Vanessa is determined to make change. She's also sharing her story via her podcast You Me Us, something she describes as deeply cathartic.

"Imagine being in a room with over a dozen of your mates. Now think about the statistic that one in 14 Australians will be diagnosed with bowel cancer. Chances are, someone in that room filled with your friends will sadly be part of that statistic, and that's just devastating. The more awareness we raise for warning signs and symptoms, the better."

Feature Image: Canva.

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