Survivors Story for ICS Online Community – by “semicolonman”
If someone told me back in 2003 that I was about to be made redundant from my job and start my own business, that in 2005 at just 42 years of age, bowel cancer would turn my life upside down and force me to give up work, and that somehow I would successfully design and project manage a house renovation while undergoing chemotherapy, then I would never have believed it. I guess life is what actually happens after all our plans are made! As strange as it sounds, being diagnosed with cancer was actually a huge relief, as it finally explained the rectal bleeding and other bowel problems that first began in 2003, although a colonoscopy back then revealed nothing. Over the next 18 months my symptoms worsened and in January 2005 a second colonoscopy found stage 3 cancer in a large polyp in my lower colon, and it had spread into my lymphatic system. I was extremely lucky that it was found when it was. Early detection probably saved my life. If I hadn’t listened to my body and acted when I did, I might not be here today to tell the tale. In order to shrink my tumour I underwent daily radiotherapy for 4 weeks, combined with daily chemotherapy for the first and fourth week. I found this treatment extremely difficult but it ensured that the major surgery which followed to remove a portion of my bowel left me with just a temporary stoma and colostomy bag, which was reversed 4 months later. I completed a further 26 sessions of weekly chemo in April 2006.
Maintaining a positive attitude and a sense of humour served me well up to this point. And in a bizarre way the major house renovation project I mentioned earlier actually helped to distract me from the severe fatigue, nausea and other side-effects that I experienced during chemotherapy, although to this day I still don’t know how I did this. Never underestimate the power of the human spirit in the face of adversity! But the months immediately following completion of all my physical treatments were extremely difficult and traumatic, when the full psychological impact of my cancer finally hit me. Gone was the secure feeling of the hospital environment, replaced by feelings of isolation and severe anxiety and questions like ‘what now’ and ‘will the cancer come back’. I also felt guilty that I had survived, when so many others had not, including several of my own relations. My GP suggested medication, but my intuition kept telling me to try the holistic approach. My oncology nurse (one of many real-life angels I have met) recommended that I visit Cork ARC Cancer Support House for counselling and it was the best thing I ever did. Without their support I don’t know where I would be today. They introduced me to meditation, tai chi and qigong, which have been life-changing for me. I now realise that recovery from cancer is as much about healing the mind and the soul as it is about healing the body. Books that nourish the soul and lift the spirit have also been incredibly helpful, by authors such as Viktor Frankl, Caroline Myss, Thomas Moore, Susan Jeffers and His Holiness The Dalai Lama. One book entitled “It’s Not About the Bike” is very special to me. Its author Lance Armstrong will be remembered for all the wrong reasons in the cycling world, but as a fellow cancer survivor I will be forever grateful to him because his book was a great source of comfort and reassurance when I needed it most. And it was while volunteering at a LIVESTRONG Cancer Summit that I decided to become a Peer Support Volunteer with the Irish Cancer Society, in the hope of making someone else’s journey that little bit easier. Giving back in this and other ways is very important to me, because if I myself had spoken to another survivor who could appreciate exactly what I was going through, I could have been spared a great deal of suffering.
Accepting the fact that cancer has changed my life forever has been a difficult but essential part of my recovery, and in some ways life post-cancer is actually better! Please don’t get me wrong. I would not wish what I went through on my worst enemy and physical and mental fatigue remain as debilitating and frustrating long-term side-effects of my treatment. Cancer has been a traumatic and painful rollercoaster but it has also been an amazing voyage of discovery and definitely my greatest teacher. I have never seen myself as a victim and I thank God for the many blessings and opportunities that have come my way because of my cancer, not in spite of it! I read somewhere that ‘bad is how we see those experiences whose part in our growth we do not yet understand’ and this is exactly how I now see my own cancer journey.