I never imagined cancer would happen to me. I was a family man working in a motorcycle showroom at the time, and I didn’t feel unwell or in pain. When I became aware of the symptoms of bowel cancer, and that I was living with most of them, everything changed.
It’s been a difficult journey, but one that thankfully worked out well for me as I’ve been fortunate enough to make a full recovery.
These are some of the top lessons I learned and I hope it might help anyone else affected through one of the toughest times of their lives.
1. The news will hit hard – but it helps to focus on the next step
Being told I had bowel cancer felt like a hammerblow. Following a colonoscopy, the consultant explained that he would wait for my wife to arrive so we could discuss his findings together. That’s when it hit me. I realised this meant the news was going to be serious.
When we were told I would need bowel surgery, I was scared. I was overwhelmed by what this meant, so I asked what would happen if I chose to do nothing. The consultant explained that in just 3 months’ time we’d be facing a situation that would be very difficult to deal with. It was sobering, but it was what I needed to hear. So I agreed to go ahead.
2. You’ll want to protect your family and friends
Though it was hard for me to hear the news, it was devastating for my wife, Tracy. She was totally shocked. She didn’t understand there could be a ‘fix’ and initially assumed it was terminal. Everyone knows someone with cancer, but when it’s yourself or your partner, it hits home and suddenly becomes very real.
I’d have preferred to find out on my own, then I could have broken the news in a way that was better suited to her – it was all so upsetting.
We kept it away from the children for a while, not wanting to upset or worry them. Apart from a very few close friends, we told no one about the diagnosis until after the surgery. I didn’t want to put anyone in the difficult, awkward position of not knowing what to say.
3. There’s lots of support available throughout the journey
The night before my surgery, my thoughts were racing. I told Tracy that I didn’t think I could go through with it. Like she always does, she managed to calm me down and reassure me it was all going to be okay. Now and again I would get dark thoughts – they were impossible to avoid, but Tracy would always do her best to help me think optimistically.
I also had so much support from incredible nurses, who spent time at my bedside talking it through with me and helping me feel calm. Their kindness was so very welcome and never forgotten. And when other people found out about my cancer, they really looked out for me. My colleagues still check in with me now that I’m better – they assure me they’re not trying to pry but just want to know that I’m okay.
4. Remember that you’re more resilient than you think – you can handle it
Before my surgery I pleaded with the medical professionals not to give me an ileostomy bag, which collects waste that passes through the diverted bowel and outside the abdomen. I was devastated to know that I’d need to have one. But as soon as I realised how important it was in helping my body recover quickly, I learned to see it as just a small price to pay. It wasn’t always convenient but I grew to accept it.
Things that initially seem unbearable soon become manageable. It helps that the care you receive is phenomenal. You’re in the hands of medical professionals who know what they’re doing and are really supportive. It gives you the confidence to adapt and cope.
After my fears about the diagnosis and treatment I moved on to a point where I was living my life as best I could. Apart from scars as a permanent reminder, those days are now a dim and distant memory.
5. Cancer isn’t your fault
Cancer really can happen to anyone. I think most people who find out they have cancer ask themselves, ‘Why me?’ It seems so unfair, especially when you’ve lived a healthy life.
I asked several medical professionals what I might have done to cause it, or what could’ve prevented it. The answer was ‘nothing’. Some people get it while others don’t. It’s a cruel potluck, but we can’t blame ourselves.
6. Don’t be embarrassed about your symptoms – get them checked out
I feel incredibly lucky that things fell into place for me and I was able to beat cancer. I put it all down to the fact I got my symptoms checked as soon as I sensed something was wrong.
Sadly, my father died from lung cancer at only 51 years old. We realised after his death that he'd been hiding it for a long time and by the time he confronted it, it was too late.
Don’t delay and never be embarrassed about any of your symptoms. We’re all human – we all work in the same way.
7. We absolutely need to keep talking
I have a lot of admiration for Dame Deborah James for raising awareness and tackling the embarrassment of bowel cancer. She dressed up and campaigned, approaching it with a positive attitude and making it feel acceptable to talk more openly about cancer and its treatment.
But we need to keep up the momentum. It’s important to keep relaying the message about the symptoms and when to get checked. And that even if it turns out to be nothing, it was worth finding out, just in case.
A doctor’s advice
Dr Bryony Henderson, Lead GP at Livi, says: ‘Cancer can affect everyone differently. If you think you have symptoms of cancer, don’t delay speaking to a doctor. Finding cancer earlier makes it easier to treat and can make the experience better for you and your loved ones.’
This article has been approved by Dr Bryony Henderson, Lead GP at Livi