Beating bowel cancer together

Louise Favaretto, Hampshire

I was diagnosed with bowel cancer in September 2017. I’d been having symptoms for a while; sharp pains in my lower stomach that would come and go. The pain would be worse after a large meal if we'd been out, so initially I thought maybe I was eating something that was causing me to have this reaction.

I went to my GP to get checked out and was sent away. The pain continued and I went back to a different doctor a few weeks later. He thought it could be gallstones and referred me to have an ultrasound. However following this examination I was told that there was no sign of gallstones or anything else.

It was so frustrating, I phoned my mum in tears from outside the clinic. I just wanted to know what was causing me so much pain.

A few weeks later the stomach cramping got much worse, it was incredibly painful and I just didn’t know what was going on with my body. I started having panic attacks, so my husband called NHS Direct, who sent a paramedic round. I was given codeine for the pain and after I calmed down, the paramedic left.

The following morning I started throwing up. My five year old daughter was home with me and was really scared. She didn’t understand what was happening to mummy and I didn’t have any answers to tell her. I was still being sick by the evening, so my husband called NHS Direct again and they sent us to our local hospital. 

Once there, I was assessed and sent off for chest and tummy x-rays. The results came back clear. One of the doctors I saw said it seemed like I did have gallstones from my symptoms, so she referred me to the radiography department about a week later.

I went to the appointment with my parents and daughter. After having the scan we were told to wait, however it was taking so long that I sent my parents and daughter home so they could have some lunch. Not long after that, a nurse appeared to take me to the registrar, she saw my family had left and seemed concerned about this, but I tried not to think too much of that.

The registrar took me to a room that was more like a store room and told me that there was thickening in my bowel, which could mean I either had Crohn’s disease, or a tumour. I was in total shock, trying to not to cry. I was given a card with a helpline number, was booked in for a CT scan and sent home.

I only had to wait a week for the CT scan, but it felt so much longer. My sister came with me and following the exam I was taken aside and told I had bowel cancer. It felt like the world was caving in on me.

Following the exam I was taken aside and told I had bowel cancer. It felt like the world was caving in on me.

We went home and my sister took my little girl into the garden so I could tell my parents the news. Of course, we all cried, just trying to take in everything that was happening. Then I waited for my husband to come home from work, so I could tell him. It what was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.

My surgery to remove the tumor was booked in for 21 September. But by 4 Sep I started to be sick again. I was feeling really unwell and I couldn’t keep down any food. I rang the colorectal department, who suggested a low fibre diet and fluids, but nothing was helping. A day later I was getting worse, so I was sent back to hospital.

I was quickly seen and had a tube inserted down my nose and into my tummy to drain the fluid that was building there. Later that afternoon a doctor came to tell me that I was being kept in overnight and that my surgery had been moved to the morning. I was so devastated by this. My daughter’s first day at school was then and I didn’t want to miss such a big moment. But I was told there was no other choice. My parents said they’d look after her overnight and my husband and I agreed that he’d leave the hospital to take her to school in the morning.

The next morning was really tough. We found out the surgery was going to be a lot different to the one we’d been preparing for. I was initially meant to have a new type of robotic surgery, which would speed up my recovery time, however as this was now an emergency that was no longer an option. It was so overwhelming having all this new information thrown at me and the operation looming. But somehow I managed it.

The next thing I knew I was waking up and being sent to the high dependency ward to get started on recovery.

By my ninth day in hospital I was ready to have the tube removed from my tummy, which meant I could have solid foods again! I was scared of what this might do to my bowels, so I only ate a small amount of curry at first, which was a huge shame as it was delicious.

My daughter came and visited me in hospital. Throughout all my cancer treatment she was such a tough cookie. Dressing up as a nurse to come see me in my hospital bed, with her toy medical kit so she could do any additional examinations. She coped with everything so well during such a tough time and still managed to go to school, learn and play with her friends. My husband and I were both so proud of her.

After ten days in hospital, I was ready to go home. The drive home from hospital was painful and that made me scared. If I didn’t know how I’d get in and out of the car, then how would I cope over the next few days and weeks?

But things did get better. We had the most amazing people around us. My parents filled up our freezer with food, friends cooked us meals and there was a constant stream of support. I was still in a lot of pain and needed to sleep downstairs on a reclining armchair, but my husband joined me so I wouldn’t be alone (and he could help me go to the loo if needed!).

It was so overwhelming having all this new information thrown at me and the operation looming. But somehow I managed it.

In the days that followed, I got a wound infection which leaked everywhere. I had to hold bath towels on it just to stop the leaking! I phoned the doctor and they sent nurses round who patched me up and I got antibiotics. The nurses then came back every day to re-dress the wound, until I was mobile enough to get to the doctors. The doctors examined the wound and discovered that I had a channel that was healing from the inside out, so until it finished healing on the inside, it couldn’t heal outside – meaning my wound would remain for a while. I found this very traumatic, even though my medical team kept reassuring me it was recovering well.

A week later I got a phone call from the doctor telling me the test results from the tumor were in. Out of 20 lymph nodes, four were found positive for cancer, so I’d need to have chemo.

During my chemo consultation I was really keen to try and make sure that we arranged for my ‘good weeks’ to fall on things like my daughter’s birthday and Christmas, so I wasn’t missing any more big family moments. We managed it and I was penciled in for four sessions of chemo every three weeks.

My first chemo session was on 30th October. That morning, I'd been to see the nurses at my doctor’s surgery who'd given me the good news that the channel hole in my wound had finally healed over, so I was going in on a bit of a high! My husband came with me and I was feeling as positive and upbeat as you can be about chemo. I did cry when the cannula went in, it was a real ‘this is happening’ moment, but I got through it. My husband made me a hot water bottle to keep my arm warm when it started to feel cold and tingle from the chemo. After two hours, I was given a truck load of meds and sent home.

When we left the hospital, the cold night air took my breath away, literally. I was struggling to breathe as my throat was so cold. We went back to the warmth of the reception and my husband took the car right there, so I didn’t need to be outside that long.

A week after my first treatment I was starting to feel better and more energetic. I was even well enough that I was able to get back into one of my passions, sewing. Making my daughter a new dress for her birthday party. Throwing myself into the project really helped me focus on something that wasn’t cancer. It felt like I was getting back to myself and the purposes I’d had before my diagnosis. I even felt invigorated enough to bake not one, but two birthday cakes for my little one!

I finished my treatment on 2 January 2018. The tingles I had with the third and fourth sessions were really harsh. I could barely walk and my legs were tight, tingly and sore. It was such a cold winter, that I couldn’t go out at all as it was just too painful.

Yet, after all of that, by February I’d started getting back to normal. I was able to walk the 20 mins to and from my daughter’s school to collect her and take her home. I got back into cycling and managed walking a little further every day. But then we were thrown another curve ball.

A large lumpy area had appeared next to my surgery scar. A doctor soon confirmed that this was an incisional hernia. Just what I needed! To make things worse, the hernia made me look pregnant, so I had to keep explaining to people, no we weren’t having a baby, I just had a hernia! We were told that the hernia couldn’t be operated on until I lost some weight and when we certain we didn’t want any more children. So it looked like the hernia was staying!

By September it was time for my yearly CT scan and I was told that I was officially clear. It was a huge weight off my mind.

It’s now a little under a year later and I’m feeling a lot more energetic. I do regular exercise, to keep my weight down (in case we want to have another baby, or we opt to get the hernia removed). I’ve just returned to work, five hours a week at a children’s day nursery and generally getting back to normal.

I do still get angry and emotional over silly things, but after everything I’ve been through, I think that’s normal.

I do think the thing that really helped get me through was the amazing people around me. My parents, parents in law, sister, husband and wonderful little girl. As well as the medical team who did such incredible work, but also made me smile during the hardest of times. Then there were all my friends who rallied round, helping with childcare, cooking us dinners, visiting me in hospital and making everything feel a little bit brighter. I’m so grateful to all of them for holding my hand through all of this.

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

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