Kate was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2011. She visited Penny Brohn UK after being diagnosed. Here she shares her story.
Living well with cancer and beyond
Cancer is a journey, as they say. A cancer diagnosis brings with it more than illness – in my experience, it brought a new, brighter perspective on life.
My story starts around Christmas 2011. I was in my thirties and seemingly fit and healthy when I was diagnosed with cancer. It came as a huge shock to me, as I’m sure it does to everyone. I had no idea I was ill.
At the time, I was busy bringing up two young children, holding down a challenging job, running to the gym twice a week and generally living my life.
After experiencing some bleeding and changes in my bowel habits, I mentioned my symptoms to the doctor as a ‘by the way’ after going there for something quite minor in comparison.
Bowel cancer diagnosis
When I was sent to see a specialist, I was still convinced it was just routine and that I would be fine, but it turned out to be colon cancer or bowel cancer.
When I heard the word ‘tumour’, I don’t remember hearing the word ‘cancer’ at all, so I felt confused. I was on my own and I think I went into shock. I needed support and a nurse sat with me and explained how common it is, and that I’d get through it, but at that moment I just couldn’t believe what was happening. I then began a series of hospital procedures.
Having a colonoscopy
The first step was an exploratory called a colonoscopy, which involves clearing out the bowel and putting a small camera inside to see the tumour and check for ‘polyps’ or pre-cancerous tumours.
The preparation for this procedure is the worst part as I had to drink two litres of strange-tasting fluid and then spend several hours rushing to the loo!
The colonoscopy itself was completely painless and the sedation was fine. It didn’t hurt and it didn’t take very long, which was a relief.
Colon cancer biopsy
The next step was to have a biopsy, which is when a piece of the tumour is sent away to be tested to find out whether the cancer had spread. Waiting two weeks for the result over the Christmas period was difficult.
My results came back, and there was bad news and good news as it was confirmed that I had stage one cancer that had not spread. Although it was offered to me, I was told I didn’t need to have chemotherapy or radiotherapy for stage one cancer. I would have to have two operations though.
What is an ileostomy?
I had my first operation in December to remove the tumour and create what’s called a stoma, which is an opening in the tummy through which they divert the colon and place a bag to collect waste. I had heard of a colostomy bag, but I had never heard of an ileostomy, which is what I had.
This was all quite a shock to my system, but it had to be done and I got on with it with time off from work and the loving care of family and friends. You certainly find out who your friends are when you’re diagnosed with cancer!
“My friends and family called me brave, but the truth is I simply had no choice. I treated it like a new project and tried to learn as much as I could about it all to get the best outcome. Changing my diet was part of that process and I cut out processed meat immediately”
I was in the hospital for about a week and had to learn all about how to care for the stoma, and psychologically, to ‘get my head around it all’. I had never even broken a bone and suddenly I was bed bound in a hospital on a morphine drip with cancer; it felt surreal.
My main concern throughout it all was that my children would not be adversely affected. The staff at their primary school were incredible and I will be forever grateful to the amazing teachers, teaching assistants and the deputy head there who supported us all.
Stoma reversal operation
My second operation was scheduled for my daughter’s 8th birthday, so we celebrated the day before. This operation was to reverse the stoma and ‘replumb’ me by sewing together the two ends of my colon. It was so strange not having the bag anymore and hearing my tummy rumbling back into action. As before, I was in the hospital for about another week. Once I was back on my feet again, I had to be careful with my eating and was offered help with nutrition and depression. I had counselling, which was very helpful, and the doctor told me about the wellbeing services at Penny Brohn UK and suggested I go along.
“I felt immensely grateful to my surgeon and all the nurses and people who helped me at that time”
Help for cancer patients
I visited Penny Brohn UK with a friend, and we enjoyed the wholesome food in the dining room, attended gentle yoga classes and found excellent books in the gift shop. I loved wandering through the beautiful and uplifting gardens.
That was 11 years ago, and I have just been back in for a follow-up colonoscopy after a three-year wait since the last one.
Although I will always consider myself ‘on the cancer journey’, I’m very glad to say that I am cancer-free and living my life again, with a new perspective. I live each day as it comes, and I try not to ‘sweat the small stuff’ anymore. I now feel grateful for every minute I’m here.
I consider myself extremely lucky to have survived to tell my story and hopefully be able to offer some reassurance to anyone who finds themselves on this strange and yet not uncommon journey.