Australia has one of the highest rates of bowel cancer in the world. Here are 5 women's stories

Australia has one of the highest rates of bowel cancer in the world. Here are 5 women’s stories

bowel cancer

Bowel cancer gets much less airtime than other forms of cancer, but it’s actually Australia’s second deadliest cancer.

A growing number of young women are being diagnosed with bowel cancer, and it’s currently the leading cancer killer for young people aged between 25 and 29. Australia has one of the highest rates of bowel cancer in the world.

Here, we ask five women that have been diagnosed with bowel cancer what their experience has been like, especially what their early symptoms were (if they had any at all), and what their hopes for the future are.

Jane Lindhe, 38 (age at diagnosis 35)

Tell us a bit about yourself

My name is Jane Lindhe, I am a mother of three, a wife, sister and daughter. I am also a journalist and editor.

bowel cancer
Jane Lindhe

What were your symptoms?

Dark red blood in my stool. It wasn’t bright red blood like people might experience with haemerroids. I had also experienced weight loss and pain in one side of stomach and fatigue.

What was the process of your diagnosis?

Initially I visted a doctor (not my regular GP) who put me on antibiotics, believing I probably had divaticulitis. The pain continued to get worse, and the antibiotics didn’t help, so I visited a private hospital’s emergency department in Melbourne. There an arrogant male doctor suggested I was probably “just a tired mother”, and sent me home with some Buscapan. My regular GP was fantastic, ensuring me that being a tired mother “did not cause bleeding from the bowel”. I was scheduled for a colonoscopy the following week where they found a large tumour at the top of my large intestine. My whole prognosis was fast – around three weeks.

What was your reaction to finding out you had cancer?

Shocked beyond words. I still remember repeating the question: “So, are you saying I have cancer?” It is a surreal feeling – almost as though you are watching a film about another person. I was terrified not for me, but for my family.

What does/did your treatment involve?

Five days after discovering I had cancer I was scheduled for a bowel resection, removing around 40cm of my large intestine. This was done via keyhole surgery, leaving me with minimal scarring. I did not require a stoma. Roughly a month later I underwent six months (12 rounds) of chemotherapy via a port in my chest. Now I have three-monthly checks, six monthly CT scans and annual colonoscopies.

What have you learnt through having cancer?

Not to sweat the small stuff. People take for granted their health all the time. They complain about small things, but those things mean nothing in the grand scheme of things if you don’t have your health. I also learnt the importance of faith in whatever you might believe in and to trust your intuition.

What is your greatest goal? 

Living to see my children grow up and helping them to become the best people they can be. Also, I am passionate about raising awareness about bowel cancer and its prevention.

bowel cancer

What advice would you give to people who are experiencing some symptoms?

Investigate now! Don’t wait a week, month or year to get it checked. If you don’t have your health you are no use to anyone. If you don’t get an answer from a doctor, get a second opinion.

Louise Richards, 55

Tell us a bit about yourself

My name is Louise Richards I am 55. I am a daughter, sister, wife, mum, nanny and friend to many.

Louise Richards

What were your symptoms

Looking back, maybe some constipation other than that no symptoms.

What was the process of your diagnosis  

I did the bowel screen just before my 53rd birthday.  I had misplaced the one sent at 50 and like lots of mums, I honestly put myself last in check-ups as I did not feel unwell. I contacted Cancer Council who initially said I would need to wait for the next one as they did not resend. So, whoever that kind person was that day [who decided to send a second test] actually saved my life. Thank you.

What was your reaction to finding out you had cancer?

I was devastated, I was fit and healthy and honestly my doctor thought because of the positive bowel screen the problem was most likely haemorrhoids. 

What does/did your treatment involve?

 I was rushed to surgery as my tumour was so large it could explode, I lost 60cm of my bowel, however I was fortunate that I did not lose my spleen or require a bag. Followed by six months of chemo. 

What have you learnt through having cancer?

How strong I am and my just get it done attitude.  I am grateful for every day and just the simple things like a beautiful sunset, rain or just life really. Cancer has taught me to love and cherish the people that are closest to you, because life can change in an instant. You never think it’s going to happen to you, but it is going to happen to someone.

What is your greatest goal? 

Last year I received another set back. I was diagnosed with another primary cancer – this time breast cancer! Surviving and one of my greatest moments was walking a half marathon half way through chemo, if I could do that I can actually do anything.

What advice would you give to people who are experiencing some symptoms?

Please do not put if off however small you think it is.  Tests are available at pharmacies. Just because you can’t see or feel anything doesn’t mean it’s not there. Early prevention is the key!

Dr Jo Newton, 31

Tell us a bit about yourself

I’m a 31-year-old female passionate about advocating for young people in agriculture – especially women. In my day job I’m a research scientist in the dairy industry. When not doing this I enjoy swing dancing, exercise and getting stuck into a good cheese platter.

Dr Jo Newton

What were your symptoms?

I saw a GP in Ireland after a night of acute stomach pain – I’d also noticed mucus and blood intermittently in my stools. I had noticed bloating and had a change in bowel habits.

What was the process of your diagnosis?

The GP I saw listened to me and recommended blood tests. When they are turned up normal he suggested a colonoscopy to rule out IBS, or diverticulitis. I waited two months in the private healthcare system in Ireland for my colonoscopy. A biopsy confirmed the diagnosis.  

What was your reaction to finding out you had cancer?

Those few days after are a blur – I was numb, couldn’t sleep & cried a bit. Somewhat ironically because I received my diagnosis days before my 30th birthday my Europe- based family already had plans to come to Ireland for my birthday. Although the celebrations were muted, I was grateful to have them around me. My new “Irish” family rallied around me supporting me until I was on a plane home.

What did your treatment involve?

I had 18cm of my colon and 40+ lymph nodes removed via laproscopic surgery. The biopsy showed that it had started to spread to lymph nodes so I then had 12 cycles of chemotherapy. My chemo went for 3 days per fortnight. I finished on first Jan 2020, I’m now in surveillance with 3-monthly blood tests, 6-monthly CT scans and annual colonoscopies.

What have you learnt through having cancer?

How much we undervalue good health. The importance of family. Before my diagnosis I’d been reading Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly. In a way, my diagnosis has been a test of practicing vulnerability; I’ve gotten better at asking for and accepting help and opening open.

What is your greatest goal?

Cancer and Covid-19 has definitely thrown a curveball at all my goals and timelines. My long-term goal is to prioritise my health (physical and mental) and to live by my values. I’ll let Melbourne come out of restrictions before setting timelines on the tangible parts of those goals.

What advice would you give to people who are experiencing some symptoms?

Pay attention to what your body is trying to tell you and get any changes checked with a GP. If you’re not happy with the answer, go and see someone else for a second opinion.

Gemma Farquhar, 36

Tell us a bit about yourself

I am now 36 years old with two young children aged 7 and 5. I live with my family on the lower north shore in Sydney. In April this year I had emergency surgery as I had a bowel obstruction. I then was advised I had stage 3c Bowel Cancer and was due to commence chemotherapy for 6 months. Post my first cycle of chemo, I had another bowel obstruction which landed me in emergency – it was then established I had a tumour in my ovary therefore restaging my cancer to stage 4. 

Gemma Farquhar

What were your symptoms?

Leading up to my diagnosis in early January, I had dinner and a few hours after eating it, my tummy was rumbling out of control. At 2am in the morning, I needed to empty my bowel and at the same time violently started vomiting. I vomited until every bit of food was out of my body. I instantly felt better after it left my body and things resumed to normal the following day. This again occurred in March on two occasions. After the incident, I felt normal but knew it wasn’t normal. I had no other symptoms. 

Was it difficult to get a diagnosis? What was the process?

YES! I went to the doctor on 3 occasions who advised me it was a tummy bug or food poisoning. I did a blood test that came back with no issues and then asked for a referral to a gastroenterologist. I then saw them on three occasions as I was being treated for things like IBS. I had an ultrasound which didn’t pick up my cancer followed by a CT scan which picked up my bowel obstruction / cancer which led me to my emergency surgery. 

What was your reaction to finding out you had cancer?

Our world turned upside down in the moments of the diagnosis. Everything changed and how I perceived every moment changed. I went through all different emotions and continue to do so. Thankfully I have had excellent support from family and friends which helped immensely. I still cry at the fear of cancer and constantly think about being here for my children as they grow older. 

What does/did your treatment involve?

I had emergency surgery (bowel resection) for my bowel obstruction, followed by chemotherapy for six rounds (fortnightly for 3 months), surgery (peritonectomy and HIPEC) for the tumour on my ovary and will shortly commence chemotherapy again for a further months and then continue to be under close surveillance. 

What have you learnt through having cancer?

The small things don’t matter. I have learnt to be grateful for every moment, every birthday, every milestone and enjoy the simple things. I was extremely busy and consumed with life before my diagnosis – now I want to be present, do everything for a purpose and surround myself with family and friends. 

What is your greatest goal?

To look back on this as an experience and something I can and will beat and use my situation to help others and gain traction through awareness, this is not an old man’s disease! 

What advice would you give to people who are experiencing some symptoms?

Persist, Persist and persist!  If it doesn’t feel normal, it’s probably not normal. 

Breanne Allan, 39

Tell us a bit about yourself

My name is Breanne and I’m from Ballarat, Victoria. I’m 39 years of age and have a 4 year old daughter Ella who is the love of my life. I work in the health industry in the Human Resources field and enjoy keeping active, fit and regularly socialising with family and friends.

In August 2017 when my daughter was only 21 months of age, I was diagnosed with Stage 3 Bowel Cancer at the age of 36 years of age.

bowel cancer
Breanne Allan

What were your symptoms?

I had bleeding after a bowel motion and have hemorrhoids which are hereditary and naturally just thought the blood was coming from my hemorrhoids.

Was it difficult to get a diagnosis? What was the process?

No not at all. After seeing my local GP for the bleeding she referred me for my hemorrhoids to Dr Bruce Stewart – Colorectal Surgeon (Bowel) in Ballarat. At the initial consultation with Bruce, he examined my hemorrhoids in his rooms and spoke to me about rubber band ligation which is a procedure in which the hemorrhoid is tied off at its base with rubber bands, cutting off the blood flow to the hemorrhoids. Bruce recommended this day procedure, which I agreed to. He also asked me at this appointment if I had ever had a colonoscopy procedure, which I hadn’t. He suggested that while I was getting the banding done he would undertake a colonoscopy procedure. I agreed to both procedures, which took place on 09 August 2017. This day changed my life forever. Bruce discovered during the colonoscopy I had a large cancerous tumor in my bowel. He spoke to me immediately after waking up to inform me of my shock news at 36 years of age. I was operated on twenty days later on 29 August 2017. Following this major surgery, I was then put in contact with Dr Heather Francis, Medical Oncologist (Cancer Specialist) from Ballarat Cancer Care for chemotherapy treatment (for 6 months.

What was your reaction to finding out you had cancer?

Obviously like most people, I was completely in shock. I kept thinking, “ at age 36 years of age, how could I have cancer?”

What does/did your treatment involve?

As mentioned above, I had 6 months of Folfox Chemotherapy treatment every fortnight. For the treatment, I had to get an arm port inserted in my left arm. During my treatment I had two emergency admissions for abdominal pain, vomiting and constipation. I finished my chemo treatment in the March of 2018 and then had a PET scan which I have yearly now following my diagnosis. I also see my Medical Oncologist and have my bloods taken every three months and have a colonoscopy procedure still every two years.What have you learnt through having cancer?

Cancer can happen at any age, so get tested, you just never know. I have now learnt to life every day to the fullest and not to take anything for granted, especially your health.

What is your greatest goal?

Obviously the most important thing going through treatment with lots of appointments and emotions is to achieve a cure for your cancer, allowing me to live a normal life span, completely removing the cancer from my body, preventing the recurrence or spread of the primary cancer which has been successfully achieved. Three years on I’m still cancer free!

I have also learnt that I am a very strong independent woman.

What advice would you give to people who are experiencing some symptoms?

My advice if you are experiencing some symptoms is don’t delay and get tested. The test doesn’t take long and could save your life, no matter what your age is, you are never too young to have bowel cancer.

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