Why being told I had bowel cancer at 37 did not come as a shock
Recently I was asked “What's it like being told you have cancer? Was it a shock?"
It should have been a shock. I was 37 when I was diagnosed with bowel cancer – a cancer usually associated with being much older, so much so that screening in this country currently doesn’t start until the age of 60. Although thanks to some amazing people campaigning hard, the screening age is being reduced to 50 soon.
So, was it a shock? Erm, no, actually. Not when they told me. You might wonder how I couldn’t be surprised by the diagnosis; how could I be expecting to hear those words?
Let me explain. Diagnosis is not a quick procedure. It's not just a blood test or scan and, hey presto, we know what's wrong with you – you have cancer! Well, it definitely wasn't like that for me.
What actually happened went something like this:
Trip to A&E with suspected rectal prolapse, not embarrassing at all – insides returned to their rightful place and told to return in three months.
Appointment with consultant colorectal surgeon, discussion about what happened in A&E, referred for a camera up the bum.
Bum camera reveals a polyp (a growth in my bowels that should not be there), biopsies taken. Told I need to do it all again, only with a camera with a longer reach to view the whole of my bowel and not just the bit closest to my bum. Apparently they needed to check for more polyps and attempt to remove the one they already found.
MRI scan to see if the polyp has grown outside the bowel.
Next camera reveals the polyp is too complex for the team to remove, further biopsies taken.
Appointment with consultant, told pre-cancerous cells found and referred to a specialist hospital for yet another camera and another attempt at polyp removal.
Specialist hospital removes polyp and finds more, smaller polyps which are also removed.
Receive letter for an appointment for a CT scan of chest, abdomen and pelvis.
Have CT scan.
Attend appointment with consultant endoscopist and told it was cancer.
So you see, when they found the polyp the first thing I did was jump on Google. Yes, I know Dr Google is a bad idea, but I couldn't help myself, I needed more information.
The first thing I saw was that polyps can become cancerous. I also read that it takes 10 years for a polyp to become cancer and that most don't become cancer, but I knew cancer was possible. I am a 'prepare for the worst and hope for the best' kinda girl, so, in my head I was preparing for cancer.
The biopsies and MRI seemed to suggest the polyp was not cancer yet, which gave some hope – until I received the CT appointment. Why would they want to scan my whole torso? Yup, light-bulb moment: they wanted to see if there was any cancer anywhere else in my body. They must have found cancer in the polyp. There you are: I knew at this point that I had cancer.
So you see, when the consultant endoscopist gravely gave me the news, I was not shocked to hear that they had found cancer. I think it was more of a shock for her that I didn't break down – I just started to ask a torrent of well thought out and reasoned questions.
My diagnosis was a long drawn out process. I went to A&E in April 2016 and wasn't diagnosed till September – that’s five months of procedures and appointments.
It didn't end there though, because once I knew I had cancer I then had to wait a little bit longer to find out the staging. Staging can't be done conclusively until surgery has taken place; well, that was my experience, they needed to get the rest of the tumour and the lymph nodes out before they could confirm the stage. Initial staging took place a month after surgery.
Was it a shock? No, I already knew I had cancer by the time I was formally told. It is more of a gradual dawning on me that happened through an unavoidable process that was a sequence of diagnostic procedures.
That's what it was like for me being told I had cancer. And, yes, honestly, the five months of prodding, poking and waiting for results was far worse than the actual diagnosis, believe it or not. Once I had a diagnosis I knew what I was dealing with; I was given a plan of action and I could start to get on with it.
With a cancer diagnosis, a new chapter in life starts. For some, it will remain just a chapter, a blip. For others like me, it becomes the new normal, but again, that's something I found out only in time.