Understanding Australia’s second deadliest cancer: Rebecca's story

19/Jun/2020     HealthMater Group

The idea of finding out you have a life-threatening disease at just 42 years of age would be an overwhelming thought for most people, and sharing this news with your three sons is a feeling that many parents would dread to even imagine.

For Ipswich mum, Rebecca Baartz, this was something she had to face when what she thought was Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) turned into a colonoscopy test which delivered a positive result for bowel cancer.

As Australia’s second deadliest cancer, bowel cancer claims the lives of more than 100 Australians every week, with an additional 300 estimated to be diagnosed each and every week—and this June, for Bowel Cancer Awareness Month, Rebecca wanted to spread awareness of the importance of early detection for this deadly disease.

“I had softer stools and visited the toilet more frequently, I self-diagnosed and believed that I was lactose intolerant and I even changed my diet accordingly,” Rebecca said.

Following these changes showing no effect, Rebecca was referred to a gastroenterologist to have a colonoscopy.

“After the colonoscopy, I needed to have another and knew something was wrong. I will never forget when the doctor said ‘This is not what I expected to find. I am so sorry to tell you this, but you have cancer’.”

As soon as cancer is detected somewhere other than the primary site in a patient’s body, they are automatically given a stage 4 cancer diagnosis and for Rebecca, due to the detection of cancer spreading from her bowel through to her liver, she was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer.

From this diagnosis, in June of 2019, Rebecca describes the next phase as a whirlwind of craziness filled with doctors’ appointments, scans and beginning her treatment plan.

Starting her first radiation treatment within just two weeks of the diagnosis, Rebecca completed radiotherapy with chemotherapy medication in an effort to shrink the cancer, followed by bowel surgery to remove it.

“Thankfully by the time I had surgery, the cancer had shrunk to be almost nonexistent, but I would still spend the next six months at Mater Private Hospital Springfield’s Cancer Care Centre receiving chemotherapy treatment.”

Before starting chemotherapy, Rebecca was given a temporary stoma (ileostomy)—an artificial external pouching system constructed for intestinal waste to be collected—to allow her bowel time to heal after surgery.

Devastated, Rebecca was committed to remaining determined throughout her treatment journey, keeping as active as her body allowed and finding support in her Mater medical team, family, friends, workplace and community organisations.

“I could not fault the care I received and the support that surrounded me; throughout my treatments, I was made to feel special and it was all these little things done by the people around me that made my experience feel tolerable.”

“There’s so much about cancer and its effects that you can’t control, but what you can control is the way you choose to fight it.”

With her bowel cancer now removed, Rebecca’s treatment plan will continue with scans every three months to monitor the lesions on her liver, an annual colonoscopy, regular appointments with her surgeon, visits to Mater’s Cancer Care Centre, and psychologist support for her mental health.

“I want to spread awareness of bowel cancer because it is not a disease that is commonly talked about,” Rebecca said.

“When I am asked about what signs I noticed, I honestly tell people that I was unaware of any of the symptoms of this disease, and many little because we assume bowel cancer only relates to the older generation.”

Rebecca said she urges people to learn more about the disease because early detection greatly increases one’s chances of a positive outcome, or less invasive treatments.

“Like many cancers, bowel cancer is non-selective—it can affect anyone at any age, gender or race.”

“I would encourage people to speak up and not ignore the changes within your body or bodily functions. Symptoms that may appear to be insignificant, silly or embarrassing could lead to early detection.”

“Above all, remember that you know your body better than anybody else and noticing these changes could be the one thing that saves your life.”

Symptoms of bowel cancer can include:

  • change in bowel habit with diarrhea, constipation or the feeling of incomplete emptying
  • thin bowel movements
  • blood in the stools
  • abdominal pain, bloating or cramping
  • anal or rectal pain
  • a lump in the anus or rectum
  • weight loss
  • fatigue
  • unexplained anaemia.

It is important to remember all the symptoms mentioned can be caused by other, less serious medical conditions. However, if you are experiencing any of these symptoms, which are persistent and troublesome, you should see your doctor. To find out more click here.

Pictured: Rebecca with her three sons. 

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