Beating bowel cancer together

Emma Campbell, Newcastle

This story has been archived. Read other real life stories here.

I was diagnosed with bowel cancer in February 2020, aged 36.

In early 2019 when I was pregnant with my third child, I had severe pain my abdominal area; I knew it wasn't labour as I was only five months pregnant but it was so severe that I was worried, and so I phoned 111. They were going to send an ambulance but instead my husband drove me to the local hospital in Newcastle.

They instantly referred me to the maternity ward, and they just said I had pregnancy related constipation, which is very common in pregnancy, and gave me a prescription for laxatives. I even questioned this as the pain was so severe but I was told yes, it can be very painful, so I just assumed it must have been that. I had low iron as well (which is common in pregnancy) and was on iron tablets, which I now know can also be a symptom of bowel cancer.

A few days after this incident I was absolutely fine again and I thought nothing of it. However a few months later in April, I had the same pain along with constipation. It felt like I had food poisoning but I just put it down to being pregnant again.

In May 2019, I had my daughter and all was fine, however in September it happened again for the third time; this time worse than ever. My stomach sounded like a gurgling drain and was incredibly painful and this time it definitely wasn't pregnancy related. Again I thought it was maybe food poisoning but that didn't make much sense as we all eat the same food in the house and my family were all fine. I also didn't feel like I could go to the GP as it was only happening one day at a time and I thought that they would think I was wasting their time.

Around this time I randomly came across an advert on Facebook for a private bowel screening test. This peaked my interest and for £39 I bought it. When it arrived I stuffed it in a drawer for a few weeks and forgot about it, but one day I took it out. When you do a stool sample, you have to basically poo into a container (it's very glamorous!) to take the sample and that's when I saw blood in my poo for the very first time. I sent it off and they rang me encouraging me to visit my GP as the blood levels in my stool were very high.

In November, I rang my GP and I was disappointed to hear that I would have to wait two weeks to speak to her, but they recommended that I visit another GP surgery where I could get an appointment the next day. That GP was very dismissive. He actually said to me after hearing all of my symptoms and having this stool test result that there were no 'red flags' and he wasn't concerned. I started to cry as I knew something wasn't right. He dismissed the private screening test result but I pushed for further testing and eventually he said that he would send me another screening test. If I hadn't have had the results of that private screening test, he would never have asked me to do another one which is quite frankly terrifying.

I was referred back to my regular GP and she was brilliant. She did lots of blood tests, which came up as low iron but I knew that already because of my pregnancy bloods, and with two positive stool samples she referred me for a colonoscopy but I would have to wait around six weeks.

Over Christmas the pain slowly got worse, especially after eating lots of food. It was particularly painful on Boxing Day; it was so bad I had to go to bed which was when I really started worrying. The pain was always in the same place.

A week before the colonoscopy, I spoke to the Dr who would be performing it, who just told me that during the procedure they would be looking for signs of Crohn's disease and inflammatory bowel disease etc. Cancer was never mentioned.

It was early February 2020 by the time I had the colonoscopy. During the procedure I had mild sedation so it's all a blur really but basically the scope couldn't get all the way round the bowel due to a large lesion. They wheeled me into a room and whilst I was on my own, they explained what had happened and that she had found something. It was only when the nurse explicitly said that when the doctor says lesion, they mean potentially cancer that I knew what they had found. I was so shocked, I just remember feeling completely numb. I didn't cry or anything, I just felt numb.

My husband was at work so couldn't be there but he was due to pick me up from the hospital a little later on. The nurse rang him and said he needed to come urgently to the hospital and when he arrived, they basically told him it's highly likely that I had bowel cancer. We just absolutely weren't expecting it at all. My mam and dad had our children, who were just eight months, four and seven at the time, and having to drive straight to theirs to get the kids and then tell them was absolutely awful. I'll never forget that day.

Two weeks later the hospital rang and confirmed that the biopsy from the lesion was cancerous, and as well as this there was a small 'shadow' on my liver. I had an MRI scan the next day, which confirmed two tiny mets on my liver which meant the cancer had spread. They recommended I have chemotherapy first to shrink the mets and then a liver resection followed by a bowel resection. They did say there was the possibility of doing the two resections at the same time.

I had a stent put in my bowel so I could eat normally again, as after the colonoscopy I was told to have a liquid diet because the tumour was almost fully blocking my bowel; I lost a lot of weight in that time, but luckily after that maintained a healthy weight throughout my other treatment. I also had a central line put in ready for chemotherapy to start.

The week the nation went into lockdown, I had my first round of chemotherapy. I had was FOLFOX and oxaliplatin for the first two rounds, and then they introduced cetuximab. Each round was two weeks until June, so six rounds in total and then a scan to check to see how it was responding.

The week the nation went into lockdown, I had my first round of chemotherapy... It was really difficult being in the hospital on my own; at the start of COVID it wasn't mandatory to wear masks but I still wore one to be on the safe side.

So after my first six rounds of chemo, the scan in June showed excellent results; one of mets on my liver had completely gone and another shrunk significantly and was just a few millimetres in size. I had to wait a long time for the MDT so the liver team could discuss next steps for me so in the meantime I had three more rounds of chemo as my oncologist didn't want me to stop treatment whilst I was waiting. A liver surgeon eventually contacted me and explained that I couldn't have a liver resection because the lesions were too small; he needed them to grow so I could have surgery. This was really hard to process, as essentially I was being told my cancer needed to grow which is the opposite of what anyone wants, but in the meantime I could book my bowel surgery which I was over joyed with as I just wanted my main tumour gone.

The surgery was booked in for the 3 September 2020; the day after my two eldest children went back to school for the first time since before lockdown, so I was thrilled that I could take them myself. A week before this my amazing bowel surgeon rang to organise a CT scan just to double check everything was still as expected, as I hadn't had a scan since June. The scan was absolutely fine and my surgery went ahead.

Fortunately the surgery went really well, I didn't need a stoma and I was home within four days. They removed the tumour and the main blood vessel to the liver. Although it was only four days it felt like an eternity as because of COVID I could have no visitors at all. The day before I went home from hospital my surgeon came in to see me, and very casually said that the CT scan I had had in August had shown no cancer at all! Nobody had told me this at the time. I was absolutely speechless… I just couldn't get my head round it! No cancer at all?

After having her wedding postponed already because of COVID my sister got married three weeks later and I was delighted to be there; I even danced on the tables with her (very cautiously!) like I had promised her we would do, back when I was diagnosed earlier that year. My family have, and continue to be my absolute rock and their positive outlook definitely helped me stay string myself and believe that it would all be ok.

After the surgery, after doing lots of research I decided to change my diet and it's now 95% plant based, plus I'm a lot more active too. In December 2020, I had a CT scan and a few weeks later an MRI along with lots of blood tests. They all came back clear, and I had the results in January that I had longed for… I'm now in remission with no evidence of disease.

My children have coped brilliantly whilst I was having treatment. It was really important to me that I was open and honest with them. The eldest is now eight and he understands that cancer is something which people do sadly die from, but I've been reassuring him that I'm not going anywhere. My other son is now almost six and he still can't distinguish the difference between COVID and cancer as the two just came hand in hand for him. When I told him that I'm better now, he thought COVID had gone. My daughter is now nearly two and she's none the wiser luckily. I am now having regular maintenance bloods and scans. I am a very positive person and I tell myself every single morning the mantra "you are cancer free" which helps my mindset a lot. I have also shared my journey openly on social media in order to raise awareness and the support I've received from others has really helped me to stay strong and positive.

When I was diagnosed I was trying to find other young people like me with bowel cancer. I came across Becks' Instagram page, she was 36 too, diagnosed in January 2020 and had two children. I couldn't believe it. I messaged her, and we instantly clicked!

When I was diagnosed I was trying to find other young people like me with bowel cancer. I came across Becks' Instagram page, she was 36 too, diagnosed in January 2020 and had two children. I couldn't believe it. I messaged her, and we instantly clicked! We've been firm friends ever since and talk all the time. We laugh at how much we have in common! Despite living a good few hours' drive away from each other, we actually met in August 2020 for the first time, which was just amazing. We couldn't hug because of COVID but along with our families we had an amazing day at the seaside. We met for the second time in April 2021 with both our families for a woodland walk, half way between where we each live, which was again just the best day. This time we did hug!

We wanted to do something positive for Bowel Cancer UK and so we started a fundraising challenge in January to raise £10,000 by the end of 2021. We do a challenge every month, for instance in January we cycled the distance from Land's End to John O’Groats on our indoor bikes. It worked out about an hour of cycling every day. In February, we ran up and down the staircase 24 times every day – we covered the elevation of Ben Nevis – Scotland's highest mountain and where Emma and her husband Kari got engaged! In March we were both knackered so we baked lovely treat boxes, asking people for donations. And in April we're taking part in Step up for 30 which is Bowel Cancer UK's challenge. We've already raised £6,000.

We have also since both receiving all clear, decided to really do something amazing, and have decided that we are going to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania in 2022! We are hoping to raise at least another £10,000, which would cover the cost of the trek and donations to the charity. So far at least two of our friends are joining us too and they'll fundraise separately, so will raise even more money for the charity. This is now our focus and doing it together is the best thing about it. When we reach the summit together we will be thinking of the entire bowel cancer community and hopefully inspiring those warriors who are still fighting to never give up.

Donate to their fundraising challenge here. Follow Emma, Becks and their trek on Instagram:

But we're leading change

Never Too Young is leading change for younger bowel cancer patients. Every year 2,500 younger people are diagnosed with bowel cancer in the UK. Our research has shown that younger bowel cancer patients have a very different experience of diagnosis, treatment and care.

What are we calling for?

  • Improved clinical guidance and practice on bowel cancer in younger people
  • Improved identification of people with genetic conditions and access to surveillance screening
  • Improved information for younger people on bowel cancer symptoms.

Back to younger people with bowel cancer

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