The words ‘we’ve found a malignancy in the tumour’ were not the words that I expected to hear from the colorectal surgeon that sat in front of me that grey January day. Time stood still. His head tilted ever so slightly to the side, I imagined him having to perfect the head tilt as part of his job of telling people they had cancer. He never actually used the C word though, but what he and I knew was that I had bowel cancer. I was an active 38 year old woman. A half marathon runner. Healthy. These are not the words that I ever expected to hear in my lifetime, let alone as a young woman in my thirties.
Over 94% of bowel cancer occurs in people over the age of 50, with 58% diagnosed over the age of 70, so I happen to be one of the unlucky 2400 people under the age of 50 who is diagnosed each year in the UK.
I first presented with symptoms of occasional blood in my stool and changes in bowel habits over a number of months, which I put down to an irritable bowel, even though I had never had any issues previously. I was also extremely tired. At it’s worst, I was going to the toilet up to 12 times a day. So I put off going to the GP as I was convinced it was food intolerances or my system reacting to stress.
Eventually I did go to my GP, where he took blood and did a stool sample, which found I had raised levels of fecal calprotectin, an indicator of inflammatory bowel disease. I was referred for a colonoscopy and soon after they found a growth in my large bowel which was so big that it was preventing me being able to empty my bowel properly. I thought finally I was going to find out what kind of bowel disease I had. They took a biopsy and told me not to google anything. They suspected it was a tumour, and I was referred for a CT scan and MRI scan. It was 2 weeks later that I was told I had stage 2 bowel cancer. Ten days after that, I was in an operating theatre having a bowel resection to remove the tumour. I was delighted to find out that none of my lymph nodes had been affected, and I wouldn’t need chemotherapy. My surgery was enough to remove the cancer from my body. I was in hospital for 9 days as I developed sepsis 2 days after my operation and they had to operate again. When I woke up, I had a stoma bag which remained for 6 weeks until I had another operation to reverse it.
The hardest part of my experience has been being separated from my children, who are 2 and 5 years old, when I was in hospital and I was too ill to see them. Another of the biggest challenges has been rebuilding my physical strength again after 3 operations in 6 weeks, and coming to terms with what a cancer diagnosis means.
One of the things that this experience has given me, however, has been a renewed perspective on what is important in life. I feel a greater sense of gratitude for my beautiful children, and try to live a more mindful life and never take the future for granted.
Author credit: Margaret Al Qaruty