Beating bowel cancer together

Vici Rigby, Bromsgrove

I was diagnosed with stage 4 bowel cancer in August 2016, which had spread to my liver. I was 37 years old with two small children, ages three and 14 months. I was so shocked because I didn’t think I’d had any symptoms; I had bleeding when I went to the toilet and had been to see my GP a few times but it was put down to piles! It was only after my GP did a quick internal examination where she felt something – either a polyp or an internal pile. It actually turned out to be one of two tumours in my rectum. Looking back, I now realise I had lost weight and was feeling really tired, plus my bowel habits were very changeable – all classic signs!

As anyone who’s had a cancer diagnosis will know, after the initial shock all you want to do is get going and get it gone. My treatment started three weeks later with six rounds of chemotherapy – 5FU, Oxaliplatin and Cetuximab. The treatment made me feel tired and I suffered with neuropathy in my fingers but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be! I was never sick and I could still carry out small tasks around the house and look after my kids during the days that weren’t spent in bed! I did have to have a few breaks when my neutrophils hadn’t recovered but the worst thing for me really, was having to shave my head as the treatment made my hair so thin. But my mum bought me an amazing wig so nobody would’ve known I was being treated for cancer - I very much wanted to keep the news between me, my family and close friends. I didn’t want sympathy and I wanted life to carry on as normal.

Over the course of those first rounds of chemo, I was very anxious as to if it would work or not. I would say my anxiety has been and still is the worst thing about cancer. Dr Gupta, my oncologist, was very honest and blunt with me – he told me after the first six rounds of chemo, I would have a scan and the cancer would be smaller, bigger or the same. This was hard for me to deal with as I just wanted him to reassure me it would work, but of course they don’t know.

I went to get my results of my scan in December 2016, it was the longest and hardest day of my life! But the scan showed remarkable results, I had responded well and the tumours had shrunk! Even though I still had cancer, our family had the best Christmas ever because we knew were on the way to beating it.

At the start of January 2017 I underwent liver surgery at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham, which was mentally challenging because your liver is such a major organ. I couldn’t quite believe someone was going to be operating on it! But the surgery went well and the histology showed that only scar tissue was removed so we had yet more reassurance of how well the chemo had worked.

Next was chemo radiation, which was the hardest part of treatment for me. I had five weeks of radiotherapy, Monday to Friday, combined with taking oral chemotherapy. The side effects were pretty awful including diarrhoea, urgency to go to the toilet and feeling generally rotten from the oral chemo. During week three I was ready to give up but it’s a good job I didn’t because the scan results showed both tumours had disappeared! Dr Gupta told me I would need a colonoscopy to take a closer look but he was, again, very pleased at how I had responded.

When I had the colonoscopy with Mrs Nicol a few weeks later, she unfortunately found a tiny bit of cancer left. It made a difficult decision quite easy in the end and it was agreed she would carry out an ELAPE procedure resulting in a permanent colostomy. I found the thought of this so hard to cope with – it would be life changing surgery and I was worried my life would never be the same. At this time, I was fortunate enough to meet Bernice, my amazing colorectal nurse specialist (CNS). Words can’t describe what she means to me not only as a nurse but also as a friend. She’s helped me and held my hand through the most difficult times of my life (and the best when I’ve had good scan results) and I will always be grateful to her! I also met Sue, my amazing friend for life, who had been through the same operation six months previously. She was always at the end of the phone to give me advice and allay my fears. She visited me in hospital and remains a great support today. On 10 July 2017, I had my rectum removed and the histology later showed that ALL of the remaining cancer was taken away – thanks to the brilliant Mrs Nicol.

Recovery from the operation was difficult at first and I spent a week in hospital. It was hard spending so much time away from my kids and husband so it was a huge relief when I was allowed home. Within a couple of weeks I was feeling really well and was sitting down on my bottom – which is apparently quite a feat after such a big operation!

Once I had fully recovered, I had a further six rounds of chemotherapy, using the same drugs I had before and then once that had finished, I had six rounds of maintenance chemo, which was gentler and caused less side effects. I had scans along the way, which all showed no evidence of disease.

My maintenance chemo finished in April 2018 and my scan in June, again, showed no evidence of any disease. Because of my age, the liver team at the hospital will keep their eye on me for ten years in total so if anything DID come back, they could hopefully nip it in the bud.

In September 2018, I started irrigating in September 2018 so now I only have to wear a plaster over my stoma rather than a bag.

We moved to Tenby in July 2019 so we live by the beach now! I have yearly scans, every November, and even though waiting for the results doesn’t get any easier, I’m now more than four years away from my initial diagnosis so the outlook is good as the risk of recurrence decreases with time.

The fear of cancer coming back will always be with me I think, at least for the next few years and this can be hard to deal with. But with the treatment I’ve already had, I know the risk is small and cancer therapies are being developed all the time so with a bit of trepidation, I look forward to a happy and healthy future.

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're 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.

Back to younger people with bowel cancer

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