I’d been going to the doctors for probably at least 18 months before I found out that I had cancer. It wasn’t the occasional visit either. I was there a lot.
Life had been busy and I had a lot going on with work, including long hours and stress. I’d had an upset stomach for much of this time and sometimes blood, but that was about it.
I’d repeatedly gone to the doctors who told me that I had nothing to worry about and that it was probably just stress. I had numerous blood tests and they said I had anaemia when I explained I felt a bit run down, so they gave me regular B12 injections, which I felt no benefit from, and sent me for an MRI scan which found nothing and a stool test. I was starting to feel like a waste of the doctor’s time.
Eventually I moved house and changed doctors. Straightaway the doctor questioned the B12 injections, stopped them and I was sent for a precautionary colonoscopy.
Within minutes of starting the colonoscopy the tumour appeared on screen. It was 5cm so impossible to miss. I didn’t twig at the time what it was or that it was serious. It was only at the end of the appointment, when my mum and I were called into a room and were told it was extremely probable that I had bowel cancer, that the enormity of the situation became clear. Why would it? I had only just turned 33 years old.
My nurse explained that the next year would be challenging and outlined my treatment plan. She’s stayed with me through this whole experience as a single point of contact which has been fantastic.
I had to wait 10 days for confirmation that it was indeed cancer, but it was just a formality. I was diagnosed with stage 3 bowel cancer. I was in a state of shock, finding it hard to function and in hindsight I must have been in a zombie like state. I spent a lot of time fretting how to tell people and then how to manage their reactions.
Surgery was booked in for 28th December which saw Christmas pass in much of a daze. I think I was mentally exhausted by that point more than anything, from emotion and from all the information I was taking in.
The week before Christmas I went on leave expecting a six week recovery from surgery. My surgeon was incredibly talented and reassuring – she removed the tumour and 19 lymph nodes, allowing me to go home a few days later – late afternoon New Year’s Eve.
I was given a very short window to have fertility treatment on the NHS which unfortunately didn’t work. This was an aspect of things that hadn’t crossed my mind when I started this process. Although I’m in my early 30s I still thought that there was time to have a family one day if I wanted one and not that the choice would be taken out of my hands.
As soon as the fertility treatment stopped I started chemo. Seven cycles were planned through IV and tablets. Fortunately it was reduced to four following the release of a new US medical study about reduced numbers of cycles.
Chemotherapy was the hardest aspect of the process mentally and physically. Nobody can prepare you for how it makes you feel physically and emotionally. It’s gruelling and I have the utmost respect for anyone that has to face it because it takes mental strength and courage. Of course you have no choice and I too became sick of the use of the word ‘brave’.
All in all I had 10 months off from work and I’m now optimistic about what the future holds. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what the future holds post-cancer. I’m 34 years old so I can’t retire and I have so much that I still want to experience. It’s really tricky to find stories that I can relate to and ways to live that are realistic and not obsessive.
It turns out though that bowel cancer is a lot more common than you think amongst young people, as is cancer in general. If I look back on my experience I am horrified to think that if it wasn’t through my own persistence and ignoring the advice of others I would have stopped going to the doctors. Gut instinct told me something wasn’t right.
I also feel quite strongly that I and others I’ve met in the same situation were told ‘we missed it because we don’t expect it in someone so young’. I don’t think this is right and more awareness needs to be raised.
I’m not sure what I could have done differently to not get cancer and nobody in my immediate family has had bowel cancer which can be genetic. I’ve been tested for Lynch Syndrome and I don’t carry the gene. It’s tough to not have answers, but I think at the end of the day all we can do in life is to live it in the best and most fulfilling way possible whether we’ve had cancer or not. In the meantime I’m back at work, looking to the future and trying not to worry. Who knows what the future holds.
*Samantha is currently working on a book project and collating stories from people diagnosed with cancer in their 20s, 30s and 40s, with a focus on the emotional impact of cancer.