Beating bowel cancer together

Suzie Smith, London

I was diagnosed with bowel cancer in September 2021, aged 32.

I could have had a gluten intolerance or cancer… turns out, I have bowel cancer. I am 32.

Three weeks before my diagnosis I went away with six of my best friends all in their 30s all who complained about having stomach issues (let's just say windows needed to remain open for the whole getaway) and I thought I was the exact same.

I told myself… everyone is tired, I just got off a long flight. I lied to myself about that being the first time I saw blood in my poo. Convinced myself I am stressed, I am regular, I need to give up certain foods, I am running loads so that explains the weight loss (and disgustingly I thought I was looking pretty good). Honestly I completely forgot what normal was because I had lived with my symptoms for so long.

It wasn't until I had to list my symptoms in quick succession that I felt the first pang of urgency from my incredible doctor that I knew that it was time to start really listening to my body, but I still didn't think it was cancer.

I was referred to a specialist in early September 2021 and advised to do a colonoscopy. At the same time my doctor was semi-assuring me that I'll probably just need to see a dietician. I strolled in thinking I would be strolling out and the hardest thing I would have to do was give up pasta. Boy was I wrong.

Whilst gripping a tub of ice cream, lying flat on my back and sporting a robe I was told that they had found a tumour (it took me a couple of days to be able to say this word). Holding my hand the doctor told me that he thought it could be cancer. Sedation rubs off pretty quickly when you hear the big C.

Then you walk out, you look the same, you feel the same, the world feels so normal but for you everything has changed. No one will really understand that but you. Then you are chucked into a whirlwind of appointments where you will speak to your oncologist secretary more than you speak to your own mother (hello Hannah, you legend) and managing your Messenger and WhatsApp messages makes you feel like you are running a small PR agency. But no one can tell you what to do when you aren't running your personal cancer headquarters. That is when you have to look after you.

For the next however long, all I need to do is show up and do whatever I am told to get better. Showing up is different for everyone but for me it's not losing myself in my diagnosis. I am still Suzie.

Although I was and still am scared, and I hope someone reading this also relates to this I was also a little relieved. I knew something in my body wasn't quite right. I was so tired I couldn't get out of bed, I thought I was depressed, I thought I had lost my energy and magic. Getting this diagnosis gave me answers, it gave ME back. It also proved to me how amazing my body is and how strong I really am. I woke up every day in a pandemic and worked, not only worked but excelled, I supported my friends and family, I exercised, I went on dates, I drank two litres of water, I kept to my skin care routine, I volunteered and I did that in spite of having something growing inside me. Think about what you have achieved whilst your body was fighting a silent battle inside you – you are a warrior.

My first step after being diagnosed was having my first round of hormone injections so I can freeze my eggs. In two weeks, I had to consider not only my life, but also the potential of bringing new life into the world. I am single and BC (Before Cancer as I have coined it) I couldn't get a text back from a Hinge date and now I am thinking about the children I desperately want. But I've learnt when it comes to cancer decisions, tests and procedures are quick and for that I am grateful.

So for me, today is the first day of my journey, the first day that body has something running through it to help me heal. My story no longer feels like a plotline from Grey's Anatomy. It's me that this is happening to. But this still doesn't make me a sick person. I am not a sick person, I have part of my bowel and a couple of pesky lymph nodes that need to be taken care of but everything else about me is healthy and I will continue thinking that. Our bodies are listening to how we are talking to them, so be kind because they are pretty phenomenal.

I know my story is only the beginning, but for me I have already decided that I am going to handle everything that is thrown at me by showing up, even when I don't want to. For me that meant going straight to Zara and buying a bright red matching loungewear suit, listening to ABBA on repeat, ringing up and being proactive about booking appointments and controlling what I could because all I knew for sure was that I was going to show up as me. I have continued to dress up for every appointment. I've also gone swimming after every appointment which has helped me find a space where I could leave my cancer life behind, even if it's just for a moment.

For the next however long, all I need to do is show up and do whatever I am told to get better. Showing up is different for everyone but for me it's not losing myself in my diagnosis. I am still Suzie, and I will be fighting cancer the only way I know how. By showing up, equipping myself with information (experts and tarot card readers only), finding, listening and learning from this new community that I didn't ask to be in but that I will forever be a part of, and by truly trusting that the doctors have my body and I (and when needed my friends and family) have my mind.

So if you, like me are new to this world, don't you dare Google a thing (I only Googled where my bowel is because that felt pretty vital), don't be afraid to set boundaries, there isn't a blueprint to handling this disease, and treat yourself to loungewear or something that will help you show up a little stronger and more fabulous to your next challenge.

I may have cancer, but hey at least I can still eat pasta. We will laugh and cry our way through this, together.

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