Throughout the month of April, we’re shining a light on issues related to colorectal cancer as part of Bowel Cancer Awareness Month. In this blog, we’re speaking to Cancer Research Wales supporter Paul, who was diagnosed with cancer following routine bowel screening. In Wales, adults aged between 60 and 74 are invited to participate in bowel cancer screening every two years. Of those invited, only around 55% participate. Currently, around 200 bowel cancers per year are diagnosed in Wales through screening – this represents about 12% of all bowel cancer cases.
Paul, can you tell us a bit about the journey that led to your cancer diagnosis?
When I reached the age of 60 I received a birthday present from the NHS. A bowel cancer test kit. As it was free and didn’t hurt, I thought I may as well give it a go although as far as I was concerned there was nothing wrong with me. I thought no more about it until a few weeks later I received another kit for a retest. This explained that it was a very sensitive test and could well be nothing to worry about, but it was advisable to do the test again to be sure. I left it for a couple of days and then seeing the kit there reminded me that I ought to do it. I still thought there was nothing wrong with me, so I was surprised when I was contacted for a colonoscopy appointment as the second test had proved positive too. By the time of the colonoscopy appointment I knew something was seriously wrong, and I was passing blood. I was not surprised at all when the colonoscopy revealed a large tumour partially blocking the lower intestine. I was scheduled for removal of the tumour and section of the bowel within three weeks of the colonoscopy.
I was absolutely certain I was going to get through this. I don’t know if it was arrogance or what but I was absolutely certain that this wasn’t going to get me! The hardest part was telling my kids of my diagnosis, though they seemed to take it in their stride.
What was your experience of treatment for bowel cancer?
On the day of my operation I was well looked after by an experienced nurse, along with a student nurse and we chatted as I waited for my anaesthetic. After the surgery, I was put on a fast recovery programme. So the physio had me out of bed the next morning and walking up the corridor with my drip stand – admittedly at a snail’s pace!
I was told by my surgeon that he was confident he had got all the cancer, and I asked to see the tumour. I know that sounds a bit weird but I’m a scientist and was genuinely interested in knowing what my enemy looked like. In the event they had sent the cancer off immediately for study, a sort of library of cancers I suppose, so I had to make do with a picture.
As part of the surgical procedure, they paralyse your intestine and pump gas into it so that it doesn’t move around and is rigid so that it is easier to get at the cancer. This for me was one of the worse bits as I felt bloated. I was told that I could not go home until there was proof my bowel was working properly again. So I was encouraged to fart. Having spent a life time of trying to hide it, it was quite a release, in more ways than one! After a few days in hospital I was allowed home, and a few more days after that I had my staples taken out by the district nurse – I was on my way to recovery.
Did you have any further treatment?
After a few more weeks I went to see the oncologist, who explained that the cancer had been stage 3c and had started to spread into the blood system. I needed chemotherapy. I was offered the chance of being part of a study investigating the effectiveness of chemotherapy, and I signed up.
I was randomly assigned to 3 months of chemotherapy, and chose the protocol that involved a cycle of chemical drips in hospital followed by several weeks of tablets, to be repeated after a short break. Luckily (?) the chemotherapy didn’t affect my appetite, but I did find that my extremities tingled uncomfortably and I couldn’t touch or eat anything cold. I always got my sons to take stuff out of the freezer for dinner, and I must have looked a sight peeling potatoes wearing padded gloves! I didn’t have a lot of energy, and since it was the year of the London Olympics, I became the ultimate couch potato – watching coverage from when it started first thing in the morning to when it finished at night. I think that was followed by the Ryder Cup, plus rugby and football of course. So I got through it.
The week after my last course of chemotherapy my choir (Tenby Male Choir) went to sing in Brecon Cathedral with Talgarth MVC. My first concert back after six months. I usually sing a couple of solos but was bit unsure of whether I was up to it. The Talgarth secretary assured me I could change my mind right up to the last minute, and they would cover for me. Kind words. In the event I went for it and I have never forgotten the cheer that went up from my own choir when I finished!
It’s great that you had a supportive network around you to help with your recovery. How are things now?
All that was nearly seven years ago. Since then I’ve lost over 5 stones through diet and exercise and I’m no longer obese – one of the factors that increases your risk of getting bowel cancer. I started running again 2 years ago with parkrun. I wholeheartedly recommend that to anyone as a friendly free way to get exercise! You don’t even have to run, you can walk if you want and someone will walk with you. Last year I ran the Cardiff Half Marathon in a time that was only a minute and half slower than when I ran it before I was ill, and raised £1500 for cancer research.
That’s amazing, congratulations! What advice would you give to someone who has just been diagnosed with cancer?
If you’ve just been diagnosed with cancer – don’t panic. What helped me was remaining positive throughout. Once I had a plan I knew I would cope, whatever the outcome. Cancer tests and cancer treatment have improved dramatically in recent years. I was lucky. It was just over 9 weeks between me taking the test and having the cancer removed. If I hadn’t used that bowel cancer test kit when I did my diagnosis would have been that much slower and my prognosis maybe not as good.
Why do you choose to support Cancer Research Wales?
I’ve been given a second chance because of the science behind bowel cancer test kits and treatment and surgery techniques that have been developed. Science has to be the way forward if we are ever going to beat cancer. So that is why I support Cancer Research Wales, to help them with the world class research that they do. I’ve been lucky enough to have seen some of their current work so I’m absolutely convinced the money is being well spent. And it’s all being spent in Wales – it feels right somehow that the money raised in Wales for Cancer Research should be spent in Wales.
We’d like to say a massive thank-you to Paul for sharing his story with us, and for his continued support. Cancer Research Wales invests significantly into projects that seek to better understand the biology of bowel cancer tumours and the nature of disease progression, as well as research developing better treatments and novel diagnostic tests. It is amazing work, but none of it would be possible without the generous support of people like Paul, all around the nation. If you would like to donate today, you can do so by visiting our donate page.