I can't imagine a good age to be diagnosed with bowel cancer. Perhaps, had I been 96, I may have thought, 'well, I've had a good innings, and frankly going to hospital every two weeks is a bit of a faff when I could be playing bridge in my nursing home.'. I'm not 96. I'm 35 and sorry cancer, but I'm too busy burning fish fingers, walking the dog and doing the weekly online food shopping. Besides, isn't bowel cancer something only old people get?
Sadly not, last year more than 2,100*¹ patients under 50yrs (therefore classified as young) were diagnosed with bowel cancer. We may be in the minority (73% of patients are aged over 65*²), but we are a growing group of people. Tragically, awareness of bowel cancer within this group is desperately low and misunderstood. I for one never thought of cancer when I started getting back ache.
Without free screening, which is already available to the over 60s, and information and literature generally aimed at the older generation, young people are often later to be correctly diagnosed and consequently likely to face a more advanced disease. Doctors will frequently consider IBS, piles or anemia before cancer is finally discovered. A delay in correct diagnosis, often more than a year, is a ticking time bomb, with the cancer developing and becoming more serious and less treatable, especially as it tends to be more aggressive in the younger. Not considering bowel cancer can have huge ramifications, ultimately costing lives.
So what can be done? Bowel Cancer UK recently launched their 'Never Too Young' campaign specifically to highlight and address these issues. In my opinion, firstly, we have to stop being so shy about going to see our GPs when we notice any changes in our bowel habits. According to this campaign research, 30% of women and 20% of men waited more than six months before seeing their GP*³.
Why are people waiting so long? Why do we seem so embarrassed to talk to a healthcare professional about something we think could be wrong or different about our bodies? Would we put up with a broken arm or suddenly going blind, thinking it will just go away? Yet a change in our bowel habits, bleeding, tummy ache and losing weight, all classic signs of bowel cancer, seem to be disregarded with a hope that things will simply get better of their own accord.
Secondly, doctors need to be ruling cancer out first, not last. Although I appreciate many of the symptoms I've highlighted could easily be mis-diagnosed, a delay in correct diagnosis will limit choices and allow cancer a greater hold on the body than necessary. A few simple questions, such as asking for a family history, could instantly help make a quicker diagnosis.
But on a lighter note, there can be some advantages to being younger with cancer - I believe I have a much stronger mental and emotional focus to get me through the chemo. Personally, I remain determined to over-rule my prognosis. I have a young family who are my number one incentive to continue to live. I am able to set targets, such as seeing my youngest start school next year and teaching my eldest to read.
I don't believe I have any other option than to fight as hard as I can and be a role model to my children. Even if Mummy is sometimes poorly, ultimately I'm still a full time mummy, there for cuddles and building Lego police stations. I hold them in my arms that little bit longer, plant a couple more kisses on their cheeks and wave a few minutes more at the school gates. These small moments are to be shared and treasured, banking a store of magical memories.
I am regularly the youngest patient on my ward, often by a good 30 years, frequently mistaken for a daughter, even a grand-daughter. This was commented upon by a radiotherapist during my five weeks of radiotherapy who welcomed me into the room with 'well, it does make a pleasant change to have a young, pert bottom to manoeuvre on to the bed!' At 34, I was delighted to have my derriere considered pert, until I compared myself to their usual customers!
Whatever my prognosis, it was always inevitable that I was going to fight. There is too much life left in me to not live. I refuse to be defined by cancer. It may be in my life, but I won't let it rule my life. I hope fellow cancer patients can find the strength to fight this indiscriminate disease, whatever their age.
To read more about my adventures with cancer, visit my website, www.lifeasasemicolon.com
*¹ Bowel Cancer UK: http://www.bowelcanceruk.org.uk/never-too-young/
*² Cancer Research: http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/cancer-info/cancerstats/types/bowel/incidence/
*³ Bowel Cancer UK: http://www.bowelcanceruk.org.uk/never-too-young/