Despite a strong family history of the disease, no one thought Sarah Woodison was old enough to get bowel cancer. During Bowel Cancer UK’s awareness drive, she tells Standard Issue her story so far.
Primary school teacher Sarah Woodison was diagnosed with stage three bowel cancer in September 2015 at the age of 32. Following surgery to remove the tumour, she was treated with chemotherapy.
Now 33, she is adjusting to her life after cancer at home in Kent and making plans for the future.
During Bowel Cancer Awareness month, she gave Standard Issue a rundown of the past couple of years in her life.
When I first started going to the doctor it was with varying symptoms that I didn’t really equate to bowel cancer. It was only when I noticed blood in my stools that I began to get more concerned.
I went to the doctor a couple of times, but was told that at my age it was unlikely to be anything sinister and it was more likely I was just suffering from a severe case of piles.
Something didn’t really feel right with that diagnosis though, and I think deep down I knew it wasn’t just a simple case of haemorrhoids. I voiced my concern and that’s when my GP agreed to send me for a colonoscopy to put my mind at rest.
Even when I went to the hospital, the doctor carrying out the procedure was convinced it would be a maintenance check and nothing more.
Despite a strong family history of the disease, I think because of my age everyone assumed it would be really unlikely to be bowel cancer, and that thought was dismissed. I didn’t know anything about it at all – probably because I was quite young when my other family members were diagnosed, I didn’t really take anything in.
When I first saw the cancer on the screen during the colonoscopy I just felt frightened. My only real experience of cancer previously had been the kind where people don’t get better, and I think I was just worried the same would happen to me.
Once I came out of the colonoscopy I remember sitting with the nurse and just feeling determined that I was going to fight the disease and not let it ‘get me’. I decided to try to stay as positive as possible and deal with whatever I needed to, head on. This attitude definitely helped me, although at times it was easier said than done – particularly when the treatment made me feel so awful!
“My family are now much more aware of bowel cancer and my brother has had himself checked to be sure that he is not at risk of developing it.”
Initially I was diagnosed as being at stage four, as the consultant thought the cancer had spread to my ovaries. But after an initial bout of chemo, a mid-treatment CT scan showed no signs of cancer there and that the tumour had shrunk. This meant I could have surgery to remove it.
Afterwards, I had more chemotherapy. The side effects were horrific. I suffered from angina, mouth ulcers, fatigue, muscle pain, neuropathy in my legs and hands, muscle spasms in my face, nausea, loss of appetite, diarrhoea, constipation, acid reflux, shortness of breath and severely dry skin.
My diagnosis had come as a massive shock to both myself and my family, and I think the biggest impact was definitely on them; they found it very hard to know what to do to help me and very often, as I was on a two-week chemo cycle, there would be a week where I was completely incapacitated and had to rely on them to help care for me.
I have always been quite independent and self-sufficient, so this was very difficult for us all to get used to. My family are now much more aware of bowel cancer and my brother has had himself checked to be sure that he is not at risk of developing it.
Keeping a positive attitude definitely helped, along with dealing with each round of treatment, each scan and each operation singularly rather than thinking of it all as one big long road of procedures. If I knew I could get through each thing then I could tick it off of my list and I felt like I was getting closer to finishing all of the treatment.
I also found I had to focus on the fact that I ‘would’ get rid of the cancer rather than I ‘might’ get rid of it, otherwise I think it would have been very easy to give up a little bit.
The support of my friends and family was invaluable and without them, getting through my illness would have been a lot harder, and seemed a lot less possible.
“I have become less willing to continue doing things that make me unhappy and I have decided that I will become less of a procrastinator and more of a do-er!”
The information on Bowel Cancer UK’s website is fantastic – a lot of times the internet can be quite a scary place, and you never quite know what to rely on for accurate information, however the charity provides a wealth of information that you know is up to date and informative, without making the situation seem scary or impossible to deal with.
They also had some links to other websites where you can find support if you want it, and the information they have about dealing with life after bowel cancer has been fantastic in helping me know what to expect, what’s ‘normal’ and has offered another place to check in if I am worried about anything.
Since my diagnosis, I think I have become more grateful as a person – it’s very cliched and you always hear people say that having cancer gives you a new perspective on life, but it really does.
I have become less willing to continue doing things that make me unhappy and I have decided that I will become less of a procrastinator and more of a do-er! Physically I have also changed quite a bit: I have lingering neuropathy in my hands and feet, which affects a lot of what I am able to do physically.
I can no longer run and walking can sometimes be quite painful but it’s a small price to pay for being alive. I also have a lot of reflux from the chemo and my bowels can be a little temperamental; however these are easily controlled with medication and diet and, again, are very small prices to pay.
At the moment, I am classed as having no evidence of disease and have regular check-ups to make sure no signs of a recurrence crop up in the future. I am due a colonoscopy on 29 April – a joyous experience – and will have another CT scan in July.
In other news, I have recently handed in my notice and decided to return to university to study for my Masters, and then go travelling. I don’t really know what I will do beyond this point; I just know that there are lots of places I want to see and I feel like now is the time to do it!
Bowel cancer is the second biggest cancer killer in the UK. Every 15 minutes someone in the UK is diagnosed with the disease and more than 2,540 people under 50 are diagnosed in the UK each year. One in 14 men and one in 19 women will be diagnosed in their lifetime.
Symptoms of bowel cancer:
• Bleeding from your bottom and/or blood in your poo
• A change in bowel habit lasting three weeks or more
• Unexplained weight loss
• Extreme tiredness for no obvious reason
• A pain or lump in your tummy
Most people with these symptoms don’t have bowel cancer; other health problems can cause similar symptoms. But if you have one or more of these, or if things just don’t feel right, go to see your GP.
Bowel Cancer UK is leading the fight for change for young people diagnosed with bowel cancer.
The charity’s Never Too Young campaign aims to improve the diagnosis, treatment and care of younger bowel cancer patients. It is calling for a change to clinical practice and policy to stop people under 50 being missed.
Every year, more than 2,500 young people are told they have bowel cancer. Three out of five people diagnosed under the age of 50 will be diagnosed when the cancer is already in the later stages of disease (stages three and four)
The charity’s research has shown younger patients have a very different experience of diagnosis, treatment and care, and, the reality is, young people are typically diagnosed late because their symptoms can be blamed on other, less serious, but more common diseases.
For more information, visit www.bowelcanceruk.org.uk