Ian Walsh was 56 when he was diagnosed with stage 1 bowel cancer. He shares with us how he managed his mental health after his treatment had finished.
Being told I had bowel cancer didn’t really affect me at first. It was a quite surreal experience seeing the tumour on the screen during my colonoscopy. The consultant afterwards was quite matter of fact going through the treatment and the surgery he was going to do the following week. In those moments I forgot what was happening around me. The small things no longer seemed to matter, and then I was thinking that actually I could die. In that moment it felt like I was inside a tumble dryer, looking out. Everything was still as normal on the outside, but inside I was all over the place.
It was really difficult telling people of my diagnosis as they didn’t know how to respond to or react. They couldn’t say what they wanted to, such as “don’t worry” or “everything is going to be ok” because we both knew that there was a good chance it wasn’t going to be.
Later that day, my diagnosis hit me at full speed. I cried uncontrollably. I just couldn’t get my head round the fact that I had bowel cancer. I didn’t know what to do with myself. The next day I went back to work. I’m a Headteacher, and it was bizarre telling my colleagues that I may not be around for a while. I was due to have my operation during the summer half term, so there was a fair chance that this time when we broke up for the holidays it would be the last time I did so.
On the day of the operation I was waiting for a telephone call from the hospital to tell me that there was a bed free. I was half hoping they wouldn’t call, but at 3pm they called and I went in. I looked round the ward and it was like looking into my future. Everyone was post-op and I was going to be like them. Am I going to walk out of this hospital after surgery, or will they wheel me out in a bag?
At this point, I felt incredible lonely – I was on my own with my thoughts, and that’s not through anyone’s fault; there were enough people around me. The phrase of feeling lonely in a crowded room was a reality.
A week and a bit after surgery I had recovered enough to go home and but had to wait for the follow up phone call to tell me the stage of the cancer. That was tough waiting for the telephone call. A call that could decide the rest of my life. My mind went into overdrive, exploring the fine detail of every possible outcome. It was tiring and upsetting but I couldn’t stop it. Nobody had warned me that this could happen.
Then the phone call came. Stage One, no further treatment needed. I‘d receive a letter regarding an outpatient checkup in a few weeks. I should have been over the moon but I wasn’t. What had the last six weeks been about? I had been one of those few diagnosed early but I didn’t think that was anything worth celebrating. My thoughts, instead, were surprisingly focusing on what could have been.
I went back to work probably too early but my aim was to get back to normal ASAP. My colleagues were great in listening to me and were very patient. To be fair I could have gained a degree in feeling sorry for myself and probably wasn’t great company. Eventually, someone gave me a timely kick up the backside, which was very much needed. Yes, I had been through a very traumatic experience but I needed to accept that getting back to normal wasn’t going to happen – I needed to embrace the new normal.
I started to write down my experience, just for myself, and what had happened to me. That helped me focus my mind in trying to understand what had happened.
I found Bowel Cancer UK website and started to read other people’s stories which I found moving and inspiring. It was quite humbling to read other people’s experiences and of the challenges they’ve had and how they’ve been faced and overcome. I was able to put my experience and challenges into some sort of perspective.
I set myself short term targets, which really helped, such as attending a football match. I didn’t want to get into the mindset of doing nothing until my five year checkup was complete and clear. However, I was still anxious about going outside as I was worried about the toilet situation. What happened if I needed the loo and wasn’t near a toilet? I wasn’t the biggest fan of using a public toilets in the first place. I had lost all my confidence about leaving the house. I spoke to my colorectal nurse about this and she gave me some helpful advice. She said if I’d just been to the loo then I didn’t need to go again straight away. I needed to retrain my bowels. In reality things were different now and I had a choice. Either I manage my bowels or I let my bowels manage me.
I applied to be a volunteer with the charity, giving bowel cancer awareness talks to my local community about the disease as well as discussing my own experience. These talks are always well received and it is always interesting to chat with people after the talks about their own knowledge of the disease.
I started eating healthier and trying out new recipes. I did more exercise, and started cycling. I’ve got a friend that loves cycling and he made me join him on rides. He set me weekly challenges with the goal of a sixty mile charity bike ride with him in a few months’ time. At first I couldn’t cycle more than half a mile without feeling out of breath, but slowly I got stronger and fitter and just over one year after my operation we finally did it, cycling from Manchester to Blackpool on a cold October night. Quite an achievement and not one I would have considered even before my operation!
I make a conscious effort of trying to focus on the here and now, setting short term targets or arranging things to look forward instead of dwelling on the past and things that I can’t change. Although I’m still working I do also try to make sure I keep active doing jobs around the house or walking the dog.
The last five years has been full of change. I’ve changed my diet, I exercise more. I’ve met some wonderful people through volunteering with Bowel Cancer UK who, by sharing their story, have helped me come to terms with my diagnosis, treatment and impact of treatment. As a result I feel mentally stronger to deal positively with any further challenges I am yet to face in life.