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Dublin: 8°C Tuesday 18 January 2022

Column: 'The doctors didn’t think it could be bowel cancer – I was 22, fit, and didn't smoke'

When I look back I really can’t believe how stupid I was. It took me six months to go see a doctor – I was studying for a masters and didn’t have time to be sick.

Robbie Lunn

I AM AN idiot. It took me six months to go see a doctor. When I look back I really can’t believe how stupid I was. It was 2010, and I was 22 when I first noticed blood when I went to the toilet. I had suffered from piles before so just assumed they had returned. The naivety of youth and the good old Irish logic of “ah sure, it’ll be grand” meant I did nothing. I was studying for a masters and didn’t have time to be sick.

When I eventually went into hospital with stomach pain, the doctors didn’t think it could have been cancer. I didn’t match the profile of a bowel cancer sufferer. I was 22, fit, didn’t smoke and didn’t have a family history. They thought it was a virus. However a colonoscopy identified a mass in my bowel and after testing it was confirmed that it was indeed a tumour and cancer.

I was incredibly scared

I remember being incredibly scared and praying the next words were not going to be how long I had to live. Luckily the outlook was positive, the road ahead would be hard, but the tumour could be removed. I was a lucky idiot. I would need chemotherapy and I would also have to have a colostomy bag. That wasn’t nice to hear. During that time in hospital I went down to 8 stone, couldn’t eat and could barely get myself out of bed and I now had seven months of chemo to face.

I eventually got home and managed to slowly build up my strength before starting chemo. Chemo is awful. It quite simply sucks. I had seven months of treatments, constantly feeling tired, sick and unable to do much but stay in the house. As it progressed I learnt to manage what part of the week I would feel particularly crap in and when I would have more energy and somehow I got through it. In February 2011 I was deemed strong enough to have my colostomy reversed and I can’t begin to tell you what that meant to me.

Still feeling the fatigue two years later

Recovery from cancer doesn’t stop there. Two years after chemo I was still feeling the fatigue and impacts that it had on my body. I was still struggling to get out of bed. But that gradually improves. The mental stress you are put through is almost worse than that on your body. I couldn’t have got through it without the people in my life. My girlfriend who never batted an eyelid despite seeing me covered in tubes, lying sick and broken in hospital, my friends who somehow managed to keep me sane, and my family who got me through the tears and the really low times. The staff in both Naas and Tallaght hospital were simply incredible. I am forever indebted to Dr Ray McDermott, Emmanuel Eguare, Peggy, Caroline, Fiona my stoma nurse, and the oncology nursing teams. I would not be alive without them.

I now volunteer with the Irish Cancer Society’s Survivors Supporting Survivors programme. Cancer survivors who are a few years post treatment help provide support to newly diagnosed patients of the same age. It was about nine months after my diagnosis that I talked to someone my age who had gone through it and that was completely by chance. It made such a huge difference to me to know that my thoughts and fears were had by others. I want to give people that support that helped me so much.

Cancer is a horrendous illness, but you can survive

I am telling my story here because I want people to know that, yes, cancer is a horrendous illness. But more importantly you can survive. I survived. I got my masters that year, have since travelled around Australia, started my first graduate job, and got my life back. Cancer doesn’t define me and it definitely isn’t the end of your life.

You may not know that April is Bowel Cancer Awareness Month. You can visit the Irish Cancer Society’s website www.cancer.ie to find information on bowel cancer and how you can reduce your risk or simply call the Irish Cancer Society’s National Cancer Helpline Freefone 1800 200 700 to speak to a specialist cancer nurse.

Read: Irish breast cancer research team reveal ‘exciting’ new research

About the author:

Robbie Lunn

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