News that symptoms in one in five bowel cancer patients are ignored came as no big shock to me. I saw three GPs in the space of 14 months with pain, tiredness and irregular toilet habits – all signs of bowel cancer.
But it took a trip to A&E, when I was doubled up with stomach pains, before I was finally diagnosed.
I think the problem is that GPs don’t automatically suspect that young people can be suffering from bowel cancer and,
in turn, young patients are not persistent enough in challenging doctors.
I first went to my GP in London in March 2009 after suffering sore joints and fatigue for about five months.
I was always going to the toilet with diarrhoea but was advised to simply take ibuprofen for the pain in my joints.
I wasn’t offered a blood test. Had I been, it would have flagged up the fact that I was badly anaemic.
I went back two weeks later because things still weren’t right but when the doctor didn’t do any further investigations I just thought, “What can they do?’”
Fast forward to May 2010 and I was feeling so bad I went to a walk-in clinic in London before visiting my GP again.
My abdomen was so sore I couldn’t stand up straight but I was told it was likely to be stomach acid and was given a prescription for indigestion tablets. It was thought I might have an ulcer.
I knew that it wasn’t normal for me to be so tired all the time, but I put it down to having a busy lifestyle. At the time I was an archivist in a city museum.
Over the May bank holidays I felt so ill that I called my parents and asked to go back home to Cornwall for the holiday weekend. By then I had lost about a stone in weight.
I visited an out of hours GP on the Sunday night. I told him I was having blood in my stools, constant diarrhoea and was in agonising pain, but he sent me away with a prescription for strong painkillers and no further advice.
My mum insisted on taking me to A&E at the Royal Cornwall Hospital . The triage nurse asked me if I always looked so pale and took a blood test which showed I was very anaemic.
Over the next two days I had all sorts of other tests, including a CT scan which showed my intestine had doubled back on itself and underneath it was a tumour.
It came as a complete shock. On the third day in hopsital I had surgery to remove a large chunk of my colon which contained the tumour.
Then there was three months of chemotherapy to get rid of any traces of cancer. I was given an ileostomy bag to collect my waste, which was removed seven months after my first op.
The last few years haven’t been easy, particularly after I discovered I have a genetic mutation called Lynch Syndrome which greatly increases the risk of bowel and endometrial cancer.
It was discovered after my dad Patrick had a bowel tumour removed a year after me when he was 63.
His father was diagnosed with bowel cancer at 32 and he later died of the
disease and his uncle also had it, so it definitely runs in the family.
Lynch Syndrome is very scary because apparently the tumours grow more rapidly, but they lie flat so are difficult to detect.
It puts me at increased risk of developing cancer again so I worry that if I have children in the future it might return and I’d never see them grow up, go to university, get married and live their lives.
Bowel cancer has had a big impact on me and I’m not as outgoing or confident as I once was.
When I got back to London I withdrew into myself as none of my friends had been ill or experienced cancer. It was like I was carrying some kind of burden.
I’d always thought about nursing as a career so I gave up my job to move to Bristol and train as a nurse. Now I’m a bit older I’ve made peace with my condition but I found it difficult to come to terms with.
It’s also affected me physically, I don’t feel as strong as I did before. I used to go to the gym a lot, but I notice now I’m so much more tired than I was.
I have to have regular B12 injections as my body struggles to absorb that vitamin after the surgery. I have ongoing discomfort in my abdomen, and a condition called bile acid malabsorption, which I’ve learned to live with but it does grind me down.
If I eat foods that are high in fat, large amounts of bile enter my colon which can cause considerable pain. I’ve learned through trial and error what works and what doesn’t foodwise.
I have also had further surgery in March 2014 to reduce scar tissue and untwist a section of bowel.
Of course, none of this could have been avoided but I do wonder what might have happened had I been diagnosed earlier. Who knows?
My advice to the medical profession would be not to rule out bowel cancer in young people. To anyone experiencing the symptoms I’d urge them to go to the GP, follow the advice and keep going back if they continue.