Rachael Stiles, Greater Manchester
"In April 2017, I was diagnosed with stage 3 bowel cancer aged 23. I was on a plane travelling to the US when I experienced severe abdominal pain, I started vomiting and doctors were called for. When we landed, I went to A&E and they carried out blood tests, an ultrasound and CT scan, followed by a colonoscopy. It was at this point I was diagnosed with bowel cancer. It was also found in two lymph nodes.
In the months leading up to my diagnosis, I had been travelling across Canada and South America. I did notice some symptoms, including a pain in my left abdomen and couldn’t go to the toilet for a while, but I put it down to a lack of sanitation or the effect of latitude on the digestive system. I wasn’t too worried as I’ve always had tummy problems, but six weeks before my diagnosis, I was in Bolivia and was hospitalised twice due to being in so much pain. They said I had a parasite and prescribed me some pills. I later found out the pain was due to a tumour blocking my bowel.
I had surgery to remove the tumour the day after I was diagnosed in the US. I spent nine days in the hospital to ensure I recovered enough to fly home. I’m now having chemo every two weeks for six months. The side effects of chemo are awful: nausea, fatigue and neuropathy, particularly in my hands and throat.
As a child I’ve always had tummy problems, but throughout my teenage years it seemed to have settled. When I was about 18 or 19 years old, the problems came back and I went to my GP five or six times. I was tested for Crohn’s and colitis but the results came back negative. I always felt reluctant to go to my GP as they kept saying the same thing and no one was listening to me. They just said I had IBS.
Just before I went to America, I went back to the GP as something didn’t feel right. She examined me quickly and said the pain must be scarring from the ‘parasite’. She referred me for an ultrasound but the appointment wasn’t until five weeks away and by that time I was diagnosed in America.
I didn’t even ask if it could be bowel cancer as I never thought my symptoms could lead to that. Since my diagnosis, my GP has expressed his shock and said out of all things it could be, he thought bowel cancer would be at the bottom of the list.
I always felt reluctant to go to my GP as they kept saying the same thing and no one was listening to me.
My life was on hold whilst I was having treatment. I went from travelling the world to living back with my parents.
The chemotherapy that I had was successful, and since I finished there has been no evidence of disease in all my scans. I now just have an annual scan, which I will have all my life since I was diagnosed with bowel cancer at such a young age.
The blog that I started and the media interviews I did helped me raise awareness of bowel cancer in young people – I received so many messages! I believe that it’s so important to continue to do this and remove the stigma of having cancer.
A few months after finishing chemo, I got a graduate job and in January 2019 I made the move from Manchester to London.
My traumatic experience hasn’t put me off travelling, I’ve been back to America twice since and several other countries since finishing treatment. I’m now determined to finish my South America trip that was cut short.
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
Together we can STOP bowel cancer
I didn’t even ask if it could be bowel cancer as I never thought my symptoms could lead to that.