Janice Bright, 74 from London
"About two years ago I was spotting blood in my poo when I went to the toilet and a change in bowel habits. I went to the GP but they said it could just be piles and gave me steroids to calm it down. The GP did examine me but couldn’t find anything.
"I’ve always had diverticulitis, which I believed masked my symptoms of the disease.
"I went to a community GP that specialises in bowel conditions and even they couldn’t find anything unusual. However, just to be on the safe side they referred me for a colonoscopy but I had to wait six weeks.
"During July 2016 my sons Rob & Andrew were at a music festival playing to raise money for Bowel Cancer UK and Beating Bowel Cancer. He later said to me that I looked very unwell, almost jaundiced, I had lost a lot of weight, and it was only then that he thought something was very wrong with me. I think it was because I was in a room full of healthy people, it emphasised how ill I looked.
"I never felt poorly and so I didn’t think twice about booking a short holiday to Devon. It was only for a few nights but it was on a coach. I was very unwell on the coach but the tour company didn’t look after me very well. They said I should go and see a local GP, but it’s not that easy if you’re not registered with them. Luckily I had a friend in Devon who was a nurse and together we went to her GP for an emergency appointment. They examined me too but they couldn’t find anything unusual.
"The colonoscopy appointment I was waiting for was cancelled; I think it was something to do with staff shortages as it was in August – prime time for holidays. They arranged it for the following month in September.
"It was during that colonoscopy in September 2016 that they found a tumour. It was very low down in the rectum, which was why it wasn’t spotted.
"A short while after this diagnosis, I felt very unwell during the night and at 3am I rang Rob. He told me to ring for an ambulance but he would be on his way. Rob arrived first, and then the ambulance but they were very reluctant to take me to hospital. They just said to take paracetamol. In the end they did take me, but Rob really had to persuade them. After 24 hours they sent me home.
The colonoscopy appointment I was waiting for was cancelled; I think it was something to do with staff shortages as it was in August – prime time for holidays.
"A week later, I phoned Rob again as I was in severe pain but this time the ambulance came before Rob and I met him at hospital. My operation to remove the tumour was only four days away so instead of coming home and go back to hospital, I just stayed there.
"Initially they said the six hour operation went well, but I couldn’t keep anything down. My sons spoke with the consultant and he said I wasn’t doing too well after the operation so I stayed in hospital so they could keep an eye on me.
"The following morning, I had a temperature and was given antibiotics to fight an infection. I was still not feeling right and my temperature was going up.
"The doctor told my sons that I had an infection from the operation because the bowel was leaking where the tumour had been removed. I went straight back into theatre for an emergency operation.
"I had developed septicaemia from this and was put in an induced coma. This was life threatening for me. I spent 11 days in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) and because I was in a coma, I lost the use of all my muscles – I couldn’t even move my head or arms. I lost three stone.
"A few days later, my family came to see me in hospital and because all my medication had inflated my veins, they told me I looked like a body builder.
"I was back at the ward to do physio and bed exercises to rebuild my muscles. To help the wound on my stomach, they attached a vacuum pump as it heals from the inside first. I must’ve looked a sight trying to walk up and down the corridor with my pump on one side and a catheter bag on the other.
"They recommended for me to go to rehab – I really didn’t want to, all I wanted was to go back home. However, the consultant explained that I was medically fit but I needed to regain my muscles. As soon as I accepted, I was whisked off. I do understand – I know beds in hospitals are in short supply.
"It was up to me how long I would be in rehab for, but Christmas was only a month away and I was determined to be at home for then. I worked so hard relearning how to walk again, but really liked having a target to work towards. Whenever there was a cancellation I would take up their appointment to do more physio.
"They told me that I couldn’t go home until I had walked two flights of stairs. Bring it on I said! We had breakfast club where the nurses tell you where everything is once, they don’t repeat it as they want you to learn for yourself. I did well but I had trouble using the toaster – I’ve never owned one as I do my toast under the grill. I’m pleased to say that I can now work one.
"I was so determined to be home for Christmas, and I was pleased that I did it. I was home on 19 December. I was so stubborn about it; it was there that I found out that I was a ‘tough old bird.’
"I started chemotherapy in February 2017, and every other Wednesday I had to go to Bart’s Hospital for this.
I’m a tough old bird. You can’t let this interfere with life.
"In July, I went to see a liver specialist as the cancer had spread there. I had an operation to remove a third of my liver. I was in hospital for 11 days.
"Six weeks after the chemotherapy had finished, I had a follow up scan. The tumour in my lung had shrunk but because I had a three month chemo break because of preparation for surgery it had grown.
"I had a further four treatments of chemo – ten tablets a day for three months. Two weeks off and two weeks on. The tablets were huge!
"Before the chemotherapy started my consultant explained all the possible side effects – it almost makes you not want to have it, but what’s the alternative? If you don’t have it, you may only have a matter of months.
"When I was first told I had cancer and had surgery, I had loads of visitors and phone calls. I’ve never been so popular, everyone wanted to see me and wish me well. It all stopped when I was on chemo. Everyone assumed I would be too tired to have visitors, should be in bed. I guess they didn’t know what to do nor what to say.
"I’m not afraid to admit that I was quite lonely and isolated.
"People used to say to me that they’ve beaten cancer, so I could too. They didn’t beat cancer on their own, they had a whole medical team behind them and a network of support. It’s important to remember that you’re not doing this by yourself.
"The cancer in my bowel and liver has now gone. They’re keeping an eye on my lung as the spot is still stubbornly there. A recent PET scan showed a lump on my stomach, it’s grown whilst I was on chemo so I’m waiting for an operation to remove it.
"I could not have got through all of this without the care and respect I received from everyone in the NHS. My son Rob works in the Metropolitan Police and they have been incredibly supportive towards us. Last, but by no means least, the love and support of my fantastic family who are always there both in good times & bad.
"I’m a tough old bird. You can’t let this interfere with life."
But we’re improving access to treatment and care for advanced bowel cancer
Nearly 10,000 people in the UK are diagnosed with advanced bowel cancer each year. This is when the cancer has spread to somewhere else in the body, such as the liver or lungs. People with advanced bowel cancer typically have poorer outcomes but access to surgery and drugs can help to extend life and can sometimes be curative.
We are determined to improve survival rates and support for people with advanced bowel cancer. We want to see improved access to high-quality treatment to ensure longer survival and a better quality of life for people, including:
- Increasing survival rates and improving holistic support for patients and their families
- Reducing inequalities in access to potential life-saving liver surgery
- Improving access to cancer drugs based on clinical need and not postcode
- Providing better communications and support for people with palliative and end of life care needs