Ive Got Guts

After Michelle saw last year's campaign she contacted the team in the hope that she could help others and create greater awareness by sharing her story. That's why when we began to work on I've Got Guts 2018, we knew that Michelle would be perfect for the campaign!

"If taking part in this campaign and raising awareness for bowel cancer means that even one person doesn't have to experience the pain I've been through then it will have been worth while. Bowel cancer is very treatable if caught early but one must be aware of the signs."

Michelle's story:

I first noticed bleeding from the back passage when I went to the toilet in January 2016. As it was so light and infrequent it didn’t concern me much and I didn’t get it checked. I never thought for a second that it could be cancer. First, there was no history of cancer in my family and I thought bowel cancer only affected elderly people.

For a year before diagnosis I had noticed an unusual lack of energy but I put it down to being busy at work

In July 2016 I started a new job (I’m a producer for a TV company) and was offered health insurance. I almost didn’t bother to fill out the form and it sat on my desk for a few weeks. But something made me fill it in - and thank God I did.

When the BUPA welcome pack arrived, I noticed a page with a list of symptoms – bleeding, infrequent bowel movements and lack of energy were on it. I finally picked up the phone and was sent to see a bowel specialist in September 2016.

Everything snowballed from that first appointment.  Two weeks later, after a colonoscopy, a CT and MRI scan, I was diagnosed with stage 3TI N1 rectal cancer. There was also cancer present in three local lymph nodes but it had not spread anywhere else.

As the tumour was low down in the rectum, surgery to remove it would have resulted in a permanent colostomy bag. I made it clear to my consultant that I first wanted to explore all other avenues that would preserve function.

In October and November 2016 I received five weeks of chemo radiotherapy. This reduced the tumour but it was still present and cancer was still active in the local lymph nodes. As I still didn’t want to have surgery, in February 2017 I started chemotherapy.

I was supposed to have 12 sessions with a break at the halfway mark. We took the break after session 5 because I got really sick. I was thrilled that the scans (CT, MRI, and PET) showed no signs of cancer, no sign of the tumour and the lymph nodes had returned to normal. I felt truly blessed with this result.

My consultants advised that there may be microscopic pieces of cancer that don’t show up on the scans and presented me with three options: finish the chemotherapy, have some internal radiotherapy (Papillion), or watch and wait for three months. I opted to watch and wait and use the time to build up my strength.

Cancer treatment is a grueling and draining experience

I had several side-effects throughout my treatment. I got radiotherapy cystitis which felt like an intense burning in the pelvic area, and vaginal bleeding. Both started around week four of radiotherapy and cleared up around two weeks after radiotherapy stopped.

My periods stopped soon after starting radiotherapy and have not yet returned. I didn’t get my eggs frozen - I didn’t feel I had the luxury of time.  I don’t know yet what the ultimate effect of that decision will be on my fertility.

After session one of chemotherapy I experienced extreme nausea but this was brought under control with anti-sickness tablets. I experienced a reduced appetite and my sense of taste was affected. I also had trouble sleeping, particularly during chemotherapy. I would wake up drenched in sweat. It was a horrible, smelly kind of sweat that made me fear going to sleep. I hated waking up in that state. I didn’t loose my hair although it got thinner. I also had a major lack of energy.

After session four of chemotherapy I started to swing dramatically between constipation and diarrhoea. I also developed really strong heartburn every time I ate or drank.

I collapsed from a mixture of dehydration, tiredness and pain. I was then hospitalised for 10 days. My weight dropped from just over nine stone to seven and a half at my lowest ebb, which is very low for a person who is 5ft 10ins tall. I also experienced neuropathy, mostly in my hands.

The weirdest thing was losing strength in my body and not being able to trust it. At my weakest, I couldn’t really leave my bed and if I did go out for a walk I needed a stick to lean on. I also experienced brain fog during chemotherapy and struggled for words that used to come so easily.

My bowel movements were all over the place and it was very distressing to have accidents when I couldn’t get to the toilet quickly enough.

Michelle has relied on a strong and positive support system

My employers were brilliant – very understanding and supportive – and I took two months off work until chemotherapy was over.

My cancer journey has had huge emotional effects on both me and my family who have been incredibly supportive. My parents had to experience my distress and pain. I have three brothers and three sisters who mostly live in Ireland. I live in London with my younger sister. They all took turns to come and look after me. It has been a rollercoaster of emotions for us all.

There were stages during this journey that I needed constant care. At the lowest point I was on my bathroom floor sobbing in my younger sister’s arms saying that I just couldn’t take the pain any more. She had to step up and lead the charge for both of us.

There were times when, in the middle of the night, she needed to get me to hospital or run out and get me medication. Often she had to make quick decisions and go against my wishes (I wasn’t making the best choices due to pain and over-tiredness). On one occasion I didn’t want to go back to hospital and put up resistance but she knew that’s where I needed to be. It takes great strength and courage to deal with a cranky cancer patient!

Equal to the number of lows on this journey were the highs. We welcomed any opportunity for humour and the silliest little things could sometimes lead to gales of laughter!

Having cancer has taught me some major lessons and has totally changed my outlook on life. I realise now that before cancer I had taken my health completely for granted. I have a new found appreciation for being healthy and thank God every day for this blessing.

I also view wealth in a completely different way - having health is the greatest wealth there is. I always thought of myself as a really strong person but I’ve learned that this can change in the blink of an eye with illness.

I have found gratitude: I start my day being thankful for all the beautiful positives in my life. During my cancer journey I realised that it’s all the little things that have the greatest impact - a smile, a nice word, a compliment, a good friendship.

Before cancer, I had my priorities upside down. I used to put my self-worth into external things. I was tirelessly striving for success and neglecting wellbeing, health, happiness and relationships. I thought if I were successful, that would eventually bring happiness. What I learned is that we can have happiness right now in each and every moment and that happiness comes from within.

I was determined to be seen as strong and independent to the detriment of my relationships. Having cancer gave me no choice but to allow others in and it has taught me that accepting help is a strength and not a weakness. My heart has been opened to receiving as much love as I give out.

My cancer journey has brought me so much closer to my family. I have spent some truly quality time bonding with them. I feel like I know them all so much more and have loved spending time with them. Now we all call each other more often and have lovely conversations.

Having cancer has also taught me compassion, patience and love for the human race.  Each and every person has their own story to tell and a lot going on underneath the mask.

I am hugely grateful to all the doctors, consultants and nurses at London Bridge Hospital who treated me throughout this journey. They have all done an amazing job to help me beat cancer and preserve my bowel function.

There is a lot of fear and anxiety around having cancer and now that it’s gone I have to deal with the worry that it might come back. I also have to deal with worry around fertility.

At the same time, I realise that if I hadn’t seen the symptoms written down in black and white on the pages of that welcome pack it may have been another couple of months before I went to see a doctor and I dread to think how different my story could have been.

Unfortunately despite the initial positive response, Michelle's cancer returned and she was too unwell to take part in this year's photo shoot. However that hasn't stopped Michelle from taking part, Michelle's got guts!