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Having treatment for bowel cancer

Five years ago, when she was 53, Hazel Caswell from Edinburgh was diagnosed with bowel cancer. At the time, one of her biggest worries was how and what to tell her children. This is Hazel’s story of coping with cancer treatment.

Being diagnosed

I had been unwell for quite a while and initially my GP had told me I had irritable bowel syndrome. But I thought there might be something else wrong. Not only did I have some pain in my tummy, but sometimes I could actually feel a lump on my right hand side. I changed my GP and my new doctor sent me for some more tests. They thought I might have kidney problems, but eventually I had a barium test which showed a narrowing of my bowel.

A few weeks later I went into hospital to have surgery. My surgeon was still not sure what the problem was and suggested I might have Crohn’s disease. But I think I knew even then that I had cancer. During the weeks before my operation, I had felt very tired and unwell. I had an operation to remove part of my bowel and a number of lymph nodes. I was in hospital for nearly 2 weeks. My doctors told me that they had removed a cancer from my bowel and found cancer cells in one of the lymph nodes.

Worries about the children

On hearing that I had cancer, my first thought was: 'How on earth do I tell my children? It was bad enough explaining to my grown up daughter, but my son Jamie was only 14 at the time - it was his birthday the day I had my operation. When I went home, my husband and I discussed what to tell Jamie, as we didn’t want to frighten him. But I think he had already worked out what was wrong with me. I talked to him about what was happening, but I didn’t use the word cancer. Then one day he said to me: “You have cancer, don’t you?” I replied that I’d had cancer and that I hoped it had gone now. That was how I felt and it seemed to make things easier for both of us to cope with. 

It also seemed important for things to carry on normally as much as possible so, a little while after my operation, we went off on holiday to Italy. This was already booked and I was determined that it should go ahead as planned. I couldn’t get any travel insurance and I still felt very tired, but I’m glad we went. We had a wonderful time.

Having chemotherapy

A few weeks later, I started chemotherapy treatment. I had the chemotherapy via a PICC line. This is a flexible plastic tube which goes into a vein in your arm and stays there for a number of weeks. I had the chemotherapy continuously through a little pump that was changed each week at the hospital. I felt sick from time to time but had tablets to help that. My hands and feet got quite red and hot as a side effect of the chemotherapy. I also noticed that my hair got thinner and I lost quite a lot of weight. But quite honestly, it really wasn’t that bad.

I did have problems with infections in the PICC line, but apparently that is not unusual. At one point, the line actually broke, which meant an extra trip to hospital to get things sorted out. But for me, the biggest problem was the tiredness. It seemed to get worse as the treatment went on and I was glad when it finished after 13 weeks.

Getting back to normal

After that, things began to slowly get back to normal, though it took a long time to put the weight back on. I went back to see the doctors each month to begin with, then every 3 months and then every 6 months. Recently the doctor at the hospital told me I was cured and I was over the moon. I can’t really describe how it felt.

I know that everyone’s experience of cancer is different, and I was lucky. In the past, I have watched friends die of the disease. But treatments have improved and it is no longer a death sentence. I am still here and, as I tell my children and grandchildren, hope to be for a lot of years to come. However, I also know that cancer can affect anyone and that is why I think research into cancer is so important. I’ve benefited first hand and I am now the Assistant Manager at the Cancer Research UK shop in Stockbridge.

An old friend once said to me that yesterday is the past, tomorrow is the future and today is a gift, which is why it is called the ‘present’. This really kept me going when I was unwell. I have always been very positive, but I think having cancer has made me a stronger person. I have been able to watch my son grow up which has been a joy. 

Factfile

  • About 36,000 people are diagnosed with colorectal cancer each year in the UK
  • Around two thirds of colorectal cancers are in the large bowel (colon) and one third are in the back passage (rectum)
  • More than 8 out of 10 bowel cancers (83%) are diagnosed in the over 60’s
  • Surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy are all used to treat bowel cancer

There is information about bowel cancer on CancerHelp UK

Our bowel cancer leaflet has information on bowel cancer symptoms, and how to reduce your risk of developing the disease.

There is information about talking to children in the coping with cancer section of CancerHelp UK.

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Updated: 22 March 2010