06 April 2018
“I was 37 and they were telling me I had bowel cancer."
A Solihull mum of two is warning that bowel cancer isn’t something that only affects ‘people of a certain age’.
Although statistics show that nearly nine out of ten people who die from the disease are over 60 years old, Rachel Hemmings was only 37 when she was diagnosed with bowel cancer.
Now she is using Bowel Cancer Awareness Month – which runs throughout April – to tell people of all ages to look out for the tell-tale signs.
Marketing consultant Rachel was travelling home from work last year when she noticed something was wrong. She explained: “I felt like I had a rush of fluid – a very strange sensation almost like I had wet myself. When I got home I realised it was blood – my dress and coat were covered in it.
“I was standing at the sink trying to get cleaned up when my husband came in and insisted I should see a doctor immediately.”
Despite an internal examination carried out, first by a doctor and then by a hospital consultant, neither could find anything wrong.
But Rachel stressed the amount of blood that had been involved and they decided they should carry out a sigmoidoscopy – a camera attached to a very thin tube that allows very detailed investigation of the bowel.
“The scope found several polyps, and one significantly larger than the others was bleeding. To be honest I was relieved they had found the source of the bleed - I didn’t really understand what polyps were - I was only 37 - surely it couldn’t be anything too sinister,” she said.
But when the results of the biopsy returned just days later Rachel got the news that no-one wants to hear.
“I headed into the hospital as if it was just another day but I simply was not expecting the results I got. I had bowel cancer! I was young, had two beautiful children and a loving husband and suddenly I had cancer - I really couldn’t take it in,” said Rachel.
She was referred to Consultant Colorectal Surgeon Mr David McArthur at Spire Parkway Hospital in Solihull, Birmingham West Midlands who explained: “Although Rachel’s case is quite unusual, in that most people affected with bowel cancer are older, we are seeing an increasing rate in younger patients.
“She did exactly the right thing by getting her symptoms checked by a specialist as soon as she noticed something was wrong, and I would encourage anyone else who notices a change in their bowel habit, rectal bleeding, abdominal pain, or symptoms they’re just not sure about, to seek medical advice and not ignore them.
“Her swift response meant we caught the cancer at an early stage which in turns means we had much more chance of a successful outcome."
Using laparoscopic (keyhole) surgery Mr McArthur was able to remove the cancerous part of the bowel and then reconnect the bowel so that it functions normally.
Rachel said: “Telling my seven-year-old son Seb that mummy was poorly and needed an operation was one of the hardest things I have ever done – he asked me if I was going to die and that really was the lowest point of my life.
“When I met up with Mr McArthur after my surgery I can’t explain my emotions when he told me I was cancer clear – we had caught it early, it hadn’t spread and he had managed to get it all out,” said Rachel.
Now she is determined to make others aware of the disease and the need to know the symptoms and get checked out by a GP if you think anything is wrong.
“The national bowel cancer screening programme covers everyone over the age of 60 but, as my case shows, you don’t have to be that age to get the disease.
“It can strike at any age and the earlier you catch it the higher your chances of survival. In a strange way I was lucky that my symptoms were so noticeable, but people should be aware of all possible symptoms and be prepared to act on them as quickly as possible.”
Although ‘cancer clear’ Rachel is being regularly checked and is preparing to have several other polyps removed.
She said: “I am desperately hoping they are able to remove all the remaining polyps but I also consider myself so lucky that I acted quickly and I would encourage anybody who has any symptoms to get them checked out immediately.”
Mr McArthur added: “All bowel cancers start as benign polyps, so if they can be removed at an early stage it prevents them from turning cancerous. Because she has a number of bowel polyps, and because she had bowel cancer at such a young age, there is almost certainly a genetic reason that has made her susceptible to the condition.
“She is now having genetic counselling to determine her further risk, and that of her family members. She will need close on-going surveillance, but I’m very hopeful she has been cured and can go on to lead a full and normal life, and see her young family grow up.”
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