How I survived bowel cancer

Teresa Mitchell-Paterson was a fit and healthy 46-year-old nutritionist when she was diagnosed with bowel cancer. Statistically she was one of the least likely people to develop the disease. Teresa also works for Bowel Cancer Australia, who are running Bowel Cancer Awareness month throughout June, a social campaign aimed at raising awareness and highlighting the importance of early detection for bowel cancer.

The facts
Bowel cancer, also known as colorectal cancer, is cancer of the colon or rectum. It is a malignant growth that usually starts as a ‘polyp’ that can grow to block the bowel or cause internal bleeding. In more extreme cases it can spread beyond the bowel to other organs. A phenomenal 15,151 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer every year in Australia.

Teresa’s diagnosis
When looking back, Teresa now recognises that she ignored some of the symptoms for about three years. “I definitely had persistent changes in bowel habits and as a nutritionist just thought to myself it couldn’t possible be bowel cancer because I’m incredibly healthy. I eat well. I don’t drink a lot of alcohol and it just can’t be me,” she says.

Teresa’s main symptoms were constipation in the form of infrequent bowel movements and difficulty with bowel movements. She also says that looking back she was also feeling more tired than usual. But as a mother of two - who was also juggling work and study - she simply put it down to being so busy.

The real turning point came when Teresa started seeing mucous and blood in her stool. Her local GP was the first person to suggest that these symptoms might be correlated with bowel cancer. She adds, “I knew that I was at risk because my dad had had bowel cancer but I thought it only happened to people over the age of 50.”

A faecal occult blood test came back positive and a subsequent colonoscopy detected a cancerous polyp. Within three weeks of her diagnosis, Teresa was having an operation called an anterior sigmoidectomy. Alongside the medical repercussions, Teresa also had to deal with intense emotional turmoil. “I was absolutely devastated and I completely went in to meltdown. I was convinced I was going to die. You can’t explain what it’s like when someone says you’ve got cancer,” she says.

Teresa says she was lucky that doctors found the polyp early, so the cancer was at stage one, meaning it hadn’t travelled outside of the bowel. She was off work for three months following the initial operation. The workload of her university study was too much to handle at the time so she deferred.

Unfortunately, Teresa's relationship deteriorated soon after her diagnosis. However, she says the support of her sister, her two children (who were 12 and 17 at the time) and the help she received from friends was amazing. “My family were great. My sister came up and helped me just prior to and after the operation. A friend of mine flew out from Singapore just after that so I had a constant stream of support coming in to help me. I was really lucky,” she says.

It has been almost six years after the initial diagnosis, yet it is still a concern.

“When I got to five years every one else was celebrating. I had a much better prognosis. And every body else was happy. But in my last colonoscopy there was another polyp.” 

Teresa still has constant Carcinoembryonic Antigen (CEA) tests, as well as thrice-yearly colonoscopy checks and annual faecal occult blood tests to monitor the disease. The fact that her most recent test revealed another polyp means that she remains in the high-risk category. Because of this Teresa says she is still waiting for a sense of relief or some sort of milestone in recovery. “I forget about it from time to time now because it’s not front-of-mind,” she says. “But every time I have a colonoscopy, a check up or a scan you always wonder.”

Lifestyle changes
In terms of lifestyle changes, Teresa says she always did a lot of exercise, but she is far more mindful of its importance now. So she closely monitors the amount of steps and physical activity she does daily. “I’ve got my FitBit and at work we now have stand-sit desks. I’m definitely doing more exercise,” she adds happily.

Teresa is also more conscious of her diet. “I was always aware of my fibre intake but I wasn’t measuring it to the degree I am now. I also used to really like barbecued meat and I don’t have that anymore,” she adds.

For help and support
As a nutritionist for Bowel Cancer Australia, Teresa says her approach to dealing with bowel cancer patients has changed for the better. “If you haven’t been through it people don’t realise that there are subtle things that happen to you about how you feel or about how your bowels work. It’s not that pleasant. If you talk to someone else who is going through it … it’s that thing of a problem shared is a problem halved.”

Bowel Cancer Australia has a buddy system that pairs up people at a similar stage of bowel cancer so they have someone to talk to. This month they are also running Bowel Cancer Awareness Month, which is focused on early detection. “It’s to help save lives. It’s to make people understand that if you’re aware of your symptoms, you need to go out there and get your symptoms checked. If there’s an early detection, over 40% of people will have a good prognosis. If it’s found late, 90% will not have a good outcome. So the earlier it’s detected the better,” she adds.

Teresa said if you have a family history of bowel cancer and it’s a first degree relative, then you must be aware if there are any daily changes in your bowel movement. It is imperative to speak to your GP, particularly if there are any blood or mucous in your stool. These days, the procedure is limited to a very simple swipe test and you are never too young to get tested.

Want to get involved with Bowel Cancer Awareness month? You can also hold a morning tea, have a high-fibre muffin bake or organise an event to raise money for Bowel Cancer Australia. Visit the Bowel Cancer Australia website for more information about detecting bowel cancer, getting tested or how you can get involved with Bowel Cancer Awareness Month.

To order a free bowel cancer awareness pack click here.

If you would like to share your own experiences with bowel cancer then join the discussion below…