April is an important month for both me and those campaigning to lower the bowel cancer screening age.
For it is bowel cancer awareness month and this year the charity Beating Bowel Cancer is asking supporters to write to MPs to end the UK bowel cancer lottery, which sees the bowel cancer screening age start at 60 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland but at 50 in Scotland.
You can get involved and write to your MP here.
Why is it important?
Well, as someone now celebrating the second anniversary of my bowel cancer operation back in April 2015, I’d encourage everyone to take up the offer of a screening test for bowel cancer.
Around 41,000 people a year are diagnosed with bowel cancer and more than one in ten are in their 50s. And while bowel cancer is the UK’s second biggest cancer killer, it is also one that can be treated successfully providing it is diagnosed early.
Screening is easy. It just involves sending a few small samples of your poo in a special envelope in the post.
But even if the results show no signs of bowel cancer, don’t drop your guard and remember to still look out for the symptoms, such as blood in your poo; changing bowel habits lasting more than three weeks; abdominal pains and a lump in your tummy.
60th birthday birthday
I sent off a sample when invited after receiving a 60th birthday present from the health people and was told no cancer was spotted. But a year later, I saw my GP, Dr Inder Basson, after having seeing something red in my poo and was invited to have a colonoscopy – a camera examination up your backside which sounds ten times as bad as it is. Our worst fears were confirmed.
I’ve written in earlier blogs here in Cancer-Talk about the marvellous treatment and support I received, but it is only because I saw my GP that the great NHS swung into action to beat the bowel cancer.
So don’t be shy or scared. Speak up if you have suspicions and see your doctor. You need to take charge of your health and hopefully your family and friends will rally round to help you get through things, as mine did, particularly my wife, Ann.
Two years on
I started writing this blog just before my 2015 operation, and earlier chapters have tried to take some of the mystery out of different treatments and explain how things like MRI and CT scans and chemo and radiotherapy can be handled without too much worry if approached with a positive frame of mind.
My main bowel cancer operation and follow up surgery for a hernia are now thankfully fading into distant memory, but I do still have after-effects, of course.
You don’t have sections of your bowel removed and reshaped without expecting some changes.
But with trial and error, I feel I am conquering many aspects of post-cancer life.
Planning and preparation are now essential before venturing far. I had to cancel a two-day trip to London the other month because of severe sickness and diarrhoea after over-doing a walk with the grandkids on the North York Moors.
Being self-employed helps…
Being self-employed certainly has had its advantages. I only stopped working for a couple of weeks in reality after the two operations.
But I accepted the need to cut my hours at the computer and during my cancer year of 2015 my earnings dropped by half, but since work has come flowing in. But I sub-contract to other journalists and communication professionals when there is too much on.
I have just finished two big English-editorial jobs for Charles University in Prague,
and I’ve also worked with the NHH business school in Bergen and the Oslo and Akershus University of Applied Sciences (HiOA) in Oslo helping with English journalistic and international profile-raising projects.
Mostly I work from home and I’m now a dab hand at the Skype interview. But I did spend four days in Oslo interviewing Norwegian researchers last September.
I have also managed the occasional trip to cover conferences like the European university PR gathering of EUPRIO in Antwerp last year and the UK universities’ international forum in London. So, I’m not completely housebound, although it sometimes feels a bit like that. It helps that I was working from home before cancer and feel comfortable with this style of life.
Getting into a routine
I’m also experimenting with a new regime recommended by my Dr Basson, whereby I take a Loperamide or Imodium tablet after breakfast as a rule to prevent the urgent need to go to the loo during the day.
After my evening meal I try to relieve any danger of constipation by drinking high fibre supplement Fybogel, or if I really want to go within a short period of time, I take something called Normacol sterculia granules, which are best mixed with yoghurt. But beware they can cause diarrhoea!
I also carry an emergency kit, complete with pads and a change of pants – just in case – plus some Imodium Instants that you can take on the move without water.
I can’t deny my mobility is sometimes restricted; and this morning I knew it would be safer to stay in and write this blog as I felt, what I delightfully call, a ‘mega poo’ was coming along the line.
You eventually learn the necessary warning signs and accept that plans sometimes need changing at the last moment. Or – if you really must go out – try dosing yourself on Loperamide and hope for the best!
I am also experimenting with modifying my diet to see if that can help. Read meat is banished to once, or maybe twice a week. I tried a low-fibre diet and changing to white great, but that didn’t make things better, so now I am on a more traditionally healthy diet and making a note if any particular foods cause problems.
I also stop drinking alcohol quite early in the evening, as I tend to take some form of sleeping aid most nights, whether an over-the-counter sleeping aid (Tesco’s own brand is good and quite cheap) or a sleep-inducing herbal drink like CherryActive (although they are not always effective). A couple of ibuprofen also help me get to sleep. About twice a week I take one proper sleeping tablet, useful when I need to be up bright and early and can’t risk a sleepless night.
I am also back seeing Sarah, my counsellor. It is great therapy being able to talk to a trained professional who doesn’t seem bored by me talking about this symptom or another. She’s also helped with dietary tips, but meditation and mindfulness haven’t really helped me to relax before sleep.
So, that’s where I have got to in my cancer journey. Currently, I am on a waiting list for a programme about diet and health at the Trinity Holistic Centre at James Cook Hospital, Middlesbrough. It can start as soon as we find two more interested people who have had cancer and now want to get better through eating well.
So, until the next time… and don’t ignore the bowel cancer screening test if it arrives in the post!
More information and advice at Beating Bowel Cancer.