Before I was formally diagnosed with bowel cancer I had been struggling for a while.
On bad days I would be going to the toilet over 12 times a day. Twice, I very nearly had an accident, both times it happened in Waitrose. What can I say? I won’t just poo anywhere, I like a posh poo ;-). Waitrose you are welcome to that tagline. I didn’t even have a chance to pick up my free coffee or newspaper. First time, I was on my own and I had to make a frantic bolt to the toilet. Second time, I was doing the weekly food shop with my children. I had to abandon them and my shopping in the middle of the aisle as I rushed away, praying I would make it to the toilet in time.
I couldn’t have cancer, could I?
I didn’t tell anyone about my near accidents, I was too embarrassed. Deep down I was worried but I played down all of my symptoms. I had googled my symptoms and bowel cancer would often pop up but I would then find newspaper articles that stated if you lived a healthy lifestyle and were young you were less at risk of bowel cancer. The average age of bowel cancer in a woman is 72. I would reassure myself with that fact all of the time. I couldn’t have bowel cancer, not me.
The sad thing is that none of us wants to think about the fact we could get cancer. I’ve lost friends to cancer who were healthy and active. Yet, I chose to bury my head in the sand for longer than I should have. A big part of that was embarrassment. Not only embarrassment about dropping my pants, but also embarrassment at the fact I might be wasting the doctor’s time. When you go through the symptoms of bowel cancer they can easily pass for something else. I questioned whether I was being a hypochondriac.
Anyone can get cancer
However, it was only when I came across Deborah James from Bowel Babe that the realisation I could have bowel cancer really struck home. She was young, healthy and kept fit, yet she had bowel cancer. I started to read all of her articles and her Instagram posts and I realised that a lot of her symptoms matched mine. I remember sending one of her articles to my husband telling him that I was worried. He told me to go the doctor; I didn’t go until later. There was always something else I needed to be doing. However, none of us really thought that it could be cancer.
Then one weekend I was in agony. My stomach hurt, I fainted and when I went to the toilet there was a lot of blood. I had also recently joined a running group and I was finding it a lot harder than I should have to keep up. I knew from everything I read that I needed to take prompt action. It was reading Deborah James’ column and Instagram posts that made me realise I needed to see a doctor.
Yet, going to see the doctor was not as straightforward as it should have been. I did stool sample tests but because of the strikes I had to repeat them. I already felt like I was wasting the doctor’s time because my blood tests had come back clear. They didn’t show that my body was fighting cancer. I very nearly didn’t repeat those stool sample tests. It was another Instagram post from Bowel Babe that reminded me I should do those tests. She reminded me that bowel cancer can happen to anyone. It doesn’t care if you are fat or thin, ugly or beautiful, vegan or carnivore, teetotal or a wine lover, it just doesn’t care. When I would reassure myself that it was nothing to worry about, Bowel Babe’s words would niggle away at me.
Why I need to share my story
Deborah is part of the reason why I am sharing my bowel cancer story. Her words have potentially saved me. Therefore, I now want/need to do my bit. I feel like I have been given this cancer baton and I’m going to wave it for all to see. I need to make more people aware of bowel cancer. I want to raise awareness and if that means just one person or family doesn’t have to go through this then I have done my job.
There is something very powerful about ordinary people sharing their cancer story. M&S might have its pretty campaigns but we can’t relate to that. It’s too sanitised, it’s not real. Then we have celebs who very kindly raise awareness and share their stories of cancer, but again it can be hard to relate to a celebrity. We can relate, however, to Sandra on Instagram who tells us why we need to check our boobs and we can relate to Deborah who tells us to check our poo.
The ordinary voices are the most powerful
The ordinary voices from the everyday people are the most powerful. I read an Instagram post a couple of days ago from a man who was diagnosed with bowel cancer in his twenties. He had symptoms for 5 years before his doctors finally took him seriously and took action. He was in remission but the cancer had recently returned and again he had to fight for his symptoms to be taken seriously. Those stories are the ones that stay with us, which make us determined to be listened to when we go to the doctors. I am still thinking about that man days later.
Opening yourself up and putting yourself out there isn’t easy. You already feel vulnerable and talking openly about your cancer can feel very exposing. I recently filmed the below short film for ITV Channel News and I found that hard. There were times I wanted to shout stop, there were times I felt close to crying, but then you remind yourself of why you are doing it. I’m putting the message out there that we don’t have time to be getting shy about sh*t, I’m reminding people that we shouldn’t let our embarrassment kill us and I’m also proof that you can be young and healthy and still get bowel cancer. It reminds people that you can be ill on the inside but still look well on the outside. Bowel cancer is really sh*tty, but I am determined something positive has to come out of it. I am hoping my experiences could inform others and potentially save other people from having to go through this.
The other reason for sharing my bowel cancer story is that it’s my story to share. Cancer comes along and it can feel like you have been robbed of your old life. You can feel like you aren’t in control. Sharing my story has enabled me to feel more in control, talking about it has helped me come to terms with it. I believe it has been fundamental in helping me stay positive. I could have hidden away but instead I chose to share my story and as a result I have been surrounded with love and support. It has also put me in contact with other members of the cancer community and their support has been invaluable too. When you are having a bad day they will reach out and reassure you and you can do the same for them.
It’s not all doom and gloom
I’m also hoping that by sharing my experiences I am showing that cancer doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom. People don’t need to worry about how to speak or support a friend with cancer, they don’t need to avoid that person. You might have cancer but that doesn’t mean you have lost your sense of humour. A real positive for me is that this cancer has forced me to refocus my priorities. Life is short is something I only realise too well now. It has reaffirmed what is important to me, it has reminded me that I have made the right decision stepping away from my teaching career and finding a job I can fit in around the children and family life. I am very fortunate I have a job that allows me to be at home with the children.
I might not have chosen the cancer card but I can choose how I react and deal with it. I am determined that so much good can come from this. That my story can help others.
You can find a full list of bowel cancer symptoms over at Bowel Cancer UK. If you have any concerns then please do go to your doctors