Beating bowel cancer together

Tim Cresswell, Ilfracombe

I'm not sure how many people have been aware but I've had bowel cancer for five months now, although the tumour has probably been there a lot longer. It was after surgery that we found out that it was stage four.

When the consultant told me and partner, Denise, that I had bowel cancer I was speechless and numb. In my heart I perhaps already knew what the outcome was going to be, but Denise just broke down. I will never forget the look on her face when she heard the words bowel cancer. Thankfully the stoma nurse took Den outside the room and comforted her from the shock.

The consultant knew without the need for any sort of biopsy, he could obviously tell just by looking at the photos he'd taken whilst performing the colonoscopy. It was now Friday 21 June.

An MRI scan had been arranged for me on Monday 8 July. We met with the consultant Mr Cartmell a few days later and the following day we were sent to Musgrove Park hospital Taunton for PET scan. The scan required me having a radioactive dye injected into my body so that anything sinister would show up a lime green colour on the scan.

I was then admitted to the NDDH Barnstaple for an operation on the following Monday morning. Suddenly things changed, from that point onwards I got the feeling that there was an urgency surrounding the whole thing, everything seemed to have picked up pace a little.

The surgeon Mr Cartmell was going to disconnect my large bowel and bring a small piece of the bowel out through my tummy and making what is known as a stoma, this now meant anything I ate came out via my stoma and didn't pass the now infected tumour in my large bowel.

He had problems at this point because my large bowel was so badly infected with Colitis, which I'd suffered with for almost 20 years. He eventually had to settle with bringing a piece of my small bowel out through instead. Sadly my bowel went to sleep after the operation, the bowel doesn't like being touched or disturbed during any operation, this is known as an ileus. It resulted in me being quite sick because my stomach had nowhere to push any food that I ate to.

They placed a tube up my nose and down into my stomach so they could rest my stomach and my bowel, any excess would now come up the tube and into a bag rather than me being sick.

In the evening's a nurse would arrive at my bedside with a very large syringe and aspirate my stomach by removing the bag from the tube and attaching the syringe and drawing off any excess stomach fluid into the syringe. More problems for the nurses on Lundy ward to sort out. Bless them.

Eventually nothing came into the syringe whilst aspirating and the tube was removed, although it felt rather odd being pulled out it meant swallowing became easier again. The only way I can describe what the tube felt like being in place was it was somewhat like having a tablet stuck in your throat that you can't shift up or down, uncomfortable but not painful.

The time had now arrived for me to learn how to change my stoma bag, the stoma nurses helped guide me through the procedure. They were kind, patient and also very encouraging regarding me attempting to complete the procedure on my own unaided. With a little practice and several more visits from the stoma nurses I quickly grasped the concept.

In my heart I perhaps already knew what the outcome was going to be, but Denise just broke down. I will never forget the look on her face when she heard the words bowel cancer.

It was also a bonus that Den had been present most of the times that my bag was being changed. To my surprise she wanted to have a go herself to see if she could complete the bag change without any assistance. She did the bag change perfectly, this now meant if I was ever unwell and unable to change the bag myself she could do it for me. A massive shout out to the stoma nurses for their patience with helping both Den and myself conquer the bag changing procedure.

Eventually the final scan results were gathered in. On Tuesday 23 July we met with Mrs Osbourne, the chemo consultant. We discussed the options available to me, I was told that if I went down the road regarding chemo therapy I would possibly have 12 months to live, or I could have an operation. The group of surgeons from Exeter hospital lead by Mr Daniels studied the scan results and worked out the extent of the cancer and thought they may be able to perform an operation.

It would mean a large operation with several of my body parts being removed in the process.

Meanwhile I was still on Lundy ward, the intention was to prepare me for the operation. I'd lost over three stone in weight and weighed in at under 12 stone. Not forgetting the now infected tumour, which was beginning to get really painful and doing all the things that a badly infected tumour does. Bless the staff on Lundy ward, they were so kind and caring I'll never forget them, they managed to get me fit enough via the constant feeding of high calorie, high vitamin Fresubin drinks. This prepared me for my large operation.

We met with the surgeon Mr Daniels in Exeter on Wednesday 7 August, he then explained what they'd decided they could attempt to do. They would remove my now disconnected large bowel, my bladder, my prostate gland and obviously the tumour itself. He then agreed to let me return home for a few days and I was admitted to hospital on Monday 12 August.

It would take quite a bit of organising for them to gather the correct group of surgeons and anaesthetist together for the operation. Making sure there would be a bed available for me in Intensive Care and obviously a bed ready back on a ward.

They eventually found a time slot when everybody was ready and I was fit enough to undergo an almost seven hour operation, the date was set for Friday 23 August. When that Friday morning arrived along with it came the anxiety, I can honestly say I don't think I'd ever been that scared before. I was petrified, as the nurses arrived to apply masking tape to the rings on my fingers and the two girls arrived with the green bed and a clean back less gown. I knew then there was no turning back.

After a short trip on the green bed I found myself in the anaesthetic room, just outside the theatre doors. On a previous trip to the ward an anaesthetist explained to me that they could administer an epidural into my spine, this would then enable them to control any pain I found myself in after the surgery for three or four days.

There was a risk though, because the tumour was so badly infected there was a slight chance that some of the infection could find its way up into my spinal cord and leave me possibly without the use of a limb. If I was really unlucky I could lose the use of both legs and find myself in a wheelchair for the rest of my life.

I was told that if I went down the road regarding chemo therapy I would possibly have 12 months to live, or I could have an operation.

There was a second option, a smaller needle could be used to do a similar job but pain relief by that needle would only last for 24 hours. After that it would be morphine, the choice was mine.

Because of the amount of problems I already had I couldn't take the risk, I opted for the 24 hour pain relief and put my faith in the trusty morphine. I'd already used morphine after my first operation in the NDDH Barnstaple.

I was told to try and relax over a large pillow with my back arched while they found the correct spot to insert the needle. My back had been sprayed with a very cold substance so I could only feel a gentle pushing. I had been told earlier to expect an odd sensation in my left leg. After a few minutes I felt this quite sudden electric shock feeling go down my left leg, "I felt the shock" I told the anaesthetist, "stay completely still" she replied, "now I know I'm in the correct place to insert the needle".

Another anaesthetist took my right hand and asked me what I drank, I told him "Southern Comfort and Lemonade". He then said he would give me a double and processed to release a fluid into the cannula in my right hand, a cannula that had been fitted earlier.

I had the operation where they removed my large bowel, my prostate gland, my bladder, my left testicle and obvious the now very angry and aggressive tumour. Total weight of the mass removed including the tumor was 4:2 kilos (9lbs in old money).The surgeon Mr Daniels and his team seemed happy that the operation had gone as planned.

I then arrived at the Intensive Care ward. I spent 10 or 12 hours on a life support machine that was managing my breathing.

Before I came around from the anaesthetic I had a very odd dream. I remember a very high dark red brick wall, the masonry was perfect. I found myself walking along a very narrow pavement, just wide enough for one person. What seemed like a couple of hundred yards away was a corner, a lamp post stood on that corner and gave out quite a dull yellow light.

The red brick wall then continued around the corner and went back at a right angle completing the vision. All I knew was I had to get to that dimly lit lamp post as fast as I could. I didn't really know what was around the corner but whatever it was, was also trying to get to the lamp post.

Whether it was death, perhaps the grim reaper - I didn't know.  All l knew was I had to get to the lamp post first.

I remember touching the lamp post and instantly I woke up and Denise was stood at the foot of my bed and said "Oh my god you're awake". Where that vision had come from I have no idea.

I can't seem to remember anything else very much about being on the Intensive Care ward other than lots of tubes. A large tube appeared to be coming out of the right hand side of my neck and another tube I could clearly see coming out of my right wrist. There were also lots of little flashing lights. I felt like I'd lost a couple of days somewhere inside the Intensive Care ward, a massive thank you must also go out to the guys for all they did for me whilst there.

I came out of Intensive Care and onto Lyme ward to get well again after the operation. I've been left tumour free but I now have two stoma bags attached to me to collect the fluids that my other organs used to do plus a rather large scar the length of my tummy.

The many well-wishers, some that I didn't really know very well, I thank you all. Now the bumpy road of recovery begins.

I'm alive though.

A massive thanks must go to my partner Denise without whose love, support and strength I wouldn't have got this far. She surprised me, and possibly herself, with the amount of courage and bravery she showed as we tackled this situation together.

My whole family network especially Kirsty and Sam who really stepped up to the mark regarding caring, cleaning and washing me. Also many other family members who were either by my bedside constantly or sending encouragement daily via my mobile phone. The many well-wishers some that I didn't really know very well, I thank you all. Now the bumpy road of recovery begins.


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


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