Pippa Woodward-Smith was just 33 when she was diagnosed with Stage 3 bowel cancer. Now fit and healthy, she urges others not to ignore the symptoms – whatever their age. Here is her story.

Being diagnosed with Stage 3 bowel cancer when I was only 33 came as a shock

"There was no family history of the disease and I thought I was too young.

Fifteen months earlier I’d started to experience some bleeding but I was changing jobs at the time and put it down to stress.

The symptoms didn’t go away, then I began to get loose stools. But even then I buried my head in the sand - I thought that if it were something serious I’d know.

Then I picked up a stomach bug. I was totally drained and I shared the fact that I was bleeding with my mum and my sister. They pushed me to see the doctor.

I was very lucky with my GP.

She said that, due to my age, it was unlikely to be anything serious but nevertheless she arranged for me to have some blood tests and a colonoscopy.

The truth emerged when I had the colonoscopy on July 24, 2014. The tumour came up on the screen straight away. There was a consultant surgeon and two or three nurses in the room and whole mood changed.

They wheeled me into the waiting area and gave me tea. They asked if I wanted to bring my mum in. I thought it was because they knew she’d been in the waiting room for such a long time. But obviously they thought I might need some support, given what they were about to tell me.

When they said they’d found a tumour, I didn’t hear it at first. I just sat there looking blank. Then I was in a state of shock. Even the consultant seemed upset – he said he’d never come across such a tumour in someone so young.

It took about a month before my treatment began: four rounds of chemotherapy followed by five weeks of chemo-radiotherapy which took me crashing into an early menopause.

Before treatment began, we had a discussion about whether I should freeze some eggs so I’d be able to have children later on but I just wanted to get on with the treatment.

Having children seemed more of a false hope than a reality at that point. You realise in your 30s that having children might not happen but when you are told that it definitely won’t happen, it’s quite difficult to take.

All in all, I considered myself lucky – the cancer was only Stage 3 and the tumour was operable.

I responded unusually well to the chemo: there were no cancer cells left when they came to remove the tumour. Then came two operations: one to remove the section of bowel which contained the tumour and carry out an ileostomy in February 2015, and a second in April 2015 to reverse the ileostomy and reconnect my bowel.

It’s funny – I approached every stage thinking I’d be fine. Then as soon as I’d find out more about what was involved, I’d think, ‘Oh my God, how am I going to get through this?’

At the end of the treatment, you think life gets back to normal. But I was in the middle of menopausal symptoms. It took a long time to gain the confidence to go out: it sounds ridiculous but you think you might have an accident. I had to force myself to leave the house. I’d get really worried about any symptoms which might indicate that the cancer was back.

It’s difficult when all your friends are getting married, having children, planning holidays – and your life has been totally derailed.

You’re facing something totally different.

I’m very lucky that I had a hugely supportive group of family and friends. My parents had just moved to live quite close and my sister was always there for me.

I loved going back to my job as a tax accountant and having some normality in my life. I had a phased return to work and found after a year of trying to work full-time that I couldn’t manage it any more and would end up sleeping all weekend just to be able to start work on Monday. Since I’ve started working part-time that has really helped my energy levels.

I was really happy to pass the ‘five years clear of cancer’ test in February 2020 and to have what I hope will be my last ever colonoscopy.

I feel that at some point cancer will get me but that doesn’t terrify me in the way it once did. Weirdly, there have been lots of positives to come out of this experience. I have learned a lot about myself and made positive changes in my life.

I realise how lucky I am to have been diagnosed in time, especially given the length of time I had my symptoms before I was diagnosed.

It has definitely made me appreciate life and not take things for granted. Nothing is guaranteed in life and you have to be grateful for every day you get given.

My family have all been tested for bowel cancer and some had polyps removed so if I’ve saved them from developing bowel cancer, it has definitely been worth it.

What I’d say to others is ‘don’t ignore the symptoms’. When I first went to my GP I would have been happy to be fobbed off because I wanted to hear that I was fine and that my symptoms were nothing serious. It turned out that the tumour may have been there for 10 years.

Just because you feel relatively okay doesn’t mean you’re fine.

Don’t ignore bleeding. Don’t be fobbed off. Don’t think you’re too young for bowel cancer to happen to you.