Beating bowel cancer together

Sarah Laws, Essex

I was diagnosed with bowel cancer in September 2019 at 54 years old.

Two years before I was diagnosed with the disease, I remember having stomach issues. I went to the GP back and forth, like a yoyo, for 18 months. It was difficult to see a permanent GP as they had a lot of locums at the time, so each time I went to see them they would say something different. I sent off samples which came back negative, but I later found out they were testing for the wrong thing.

In June 2019, I landed my dream job but due to all the toilet issues I was having, I was constantly late for work. So much so that I received a verbal warning. Four weeks later, I started to feel very unwell, sluggish and I noticed blood in my poo. In the shower I spotted a bulge in my inner thigh – I knew something was wrong. I begged the receptionist at my doctor’s surgery to see the permanent GP and managed to finally get an appointment. She fast tracked me for a colonoscopy, which I had three days later.

It was there that they spotted the tumour, it was three and half inches round and just inside my rectum. I had CT and MRI scans plus blood tests and on the 16 September 2019, I was told I had bowel cancer. I was devastated, but the surgeon told me, my partner and two daughters who were with me, the plan of action.

A month later I started radiotherapy and chemotherapy. For six weeks every day I would do the three-hour round trip to hospital to have treatment. Work wouldn’t let me have any paid time off so I would use my annual leave. It was a nightmare.

In March 2020, I had robotic surgery (lower interior resection) and I woke up with a colostomy bag. I named her Moaning Myrtle, as she made a lot of strange sounds. Three days later we were straight into lockdown and all the follow up hospital appointments were over the phone.

I was left at home by myself contemplating what I had been through and, as I was on sick leave from work, I was trying to think of things I could do to occupy my time. I love to talk so I volunteered with the NHS to talk to patients over the phone. It kept me sane, and although the need for it diminished after lockdown, I do still keep in touch with some of them. I also volunteer for other charities, such as being part of a patient forum for robotic surgery as I was one of the first in the country to have it, and I was filmed by another charity about my experience of bowel cancer.

At the start of 2021, I left my dream job. It was a tough decision, but they weren’t empathetic towards me and what I was going through. They were constantly asking for sickness certificates and even bringing in a health assessor to see if I was fit for work. The whole thing was very stressful and I couldn’t stand the pressure so I left. In my year off I landscaped my garden, it was brilliant for my mental health. However, I went through a lot of savings so had to find a job and fortunately I now work three days a week at a solicitors and I absolutely love it.

I’ve now finished treatment and am in remission. I have regular tests and they’ve all come back clear so far. I wouldn’t change my cancer diagnosis, it put my life in focus and it’s made me such a positive person. I have had dark times but if I can just make one person laugh about my experience then I’ll die happy.

My dad died from lung cancer when he was 65, he was only diagnosed 10 months prior – it had such a massive effect on the family as he was such a huge rock for us all. It was particularly difficult for my daughters and when I was diagnosed with cancer, they found it difficult to come to terms with it. In fact, I haven’t seen them since the day I was diagnosed. That’s their decision and I’ll always be there for them if they want me. My mum has just been diagnosed with breast cancer, I could crumble but she’s like me – we’re positive people and want to see the best in life.

I have just done a 13000 foot parachute jump for my local Helena Rollason Centre, raising just over £1000 so far. This will go towards the holistic treatment they offer to cancer patients both male and female and they were pivotal to my recouperation after my operations.

My spare time is split between DIY and Gardening and my true love: my motorbikes. I belong to a wonderful ladies group called Essex Curvy Riders MCC and they have been my family for the last year.  We go out most weekends to various places – our motto is “Ride, eat cake, repeat.” I have made some wonderful friends within the group.

Dame Deborah James was such an inspiration. She was able to laugh at everything, it really resonated with me. She was such a positive person and had a profound impact on raising awareness of the disease. I remember that I was filming a video for another charity and it was quite a bittersweet day in the end as this was the day that she died. It is therefore appropriate that we continue on with her wonderful efforts to take away the stigma of poo! 

The last couple of years has given me true direction in life. It’s been like a ‘eureka’ moment for me. I may not have long left, you never know if the cancer may come back, but I want to make my time on this earth important. I am currently part of a patients’ focus group that has regular meetings with surgeons and trainee medical students. This group works with the profession to help improve treatment and empathy towards the patients.

My life now is so much better than before my diagnosis and I feel that I am a better person too.

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