Monday 11 December 2017

Cork TV producer (33) discovered she had aggressive rectal cancer weeks after starting new job in London

Michelle, in June 2017, was diagnosed with aggressive rectal cancer after she bled when she went to the toilet (PA Real Life/James Dukes)
Michelle, in June 2017, was diagnosed with aggressive rectal cancer after she bled when she went to the toilet (PA Real Life/James Dukes)

Laura Abernethy

A 33-year-old woman has a desk decluttering session to thank for discovering she had aggressive rectal cancer.

Michelle Forde, originally from Glanmire in Cork relocated to London from Belfast last summer and was a few weeks into a new job when she decided to clear up and send off some forms for health insurance she'd chucked on her desk.

When the welcome pack arrived a few days later, she discovered a leaflet which listed symptoms to look out for – and Michelle realised she had many of them.

The TV producer was referred to the private London Bridge Hospital, and was diagnosed with stage three rectal cancer that was close to spreading throughout her body.

Michelle, now in remission, said: "I'd left the forms on my desk and hadn't even thought about them but tidying up and getting the welcome pack helped me realise I needed to get this checked out.

"A lot of people notice the symptoms but are too embarrassed to go to the doctor. It's a cancer that people don't really talk about, even though bowel cancer is the fourth most common type in the UK.

"I didn't even think about cancer because I was so young and barely noticed anything was wrong.

"I'm so lucky that I found out when I did as it was just days away from spreading throughout my body."

Michelle first started experiencing symptoms including bleeding when she went to the toilet in January 2016, but they were so light and infrequent, she said didn't pay much attention.

Also suffering from fatigue and an unusual outbreak of acne on her face, she put it down to being busy at work.

But when she started a new job in July 2016, she was offered health insurance.

She explained: "The forms sat on my desk for a few weeks and then I came across them one day when I was tidying up. I told myself, 'I better do that.'

"I received a welcome pack and on the first page, it said 'if you ever have any of these symptoms, let us know.' It mentioned lack of energy, bleeding and more frequent bowel movements. I realised that I ticked a few of those boxes."

Referred to the private London Bridge Hospital, Michelle went to see a bowel specialist for the first time in September 2016.

She continued: "He did an examination and didn't like what he found. From his face at that first meeting, I knew there was something that wasn't quite right."

Two weeks later, a colonoscopy and MRI scan revealed that Michelle had stage three rectal cancer.

The tumour, which was about 6cm, had spread to three of the local lymph nodes and doctors warned that the cancer could spread to other organs very quickly.

They told her that it could be treated, but it would require surgery and because the tumour was low down in her rectum she would live with a colostomy bag for the rest of her life.

"My initial reaction was just to leave the office as quick as I could," Michelle explained. "The doctor was running after me to try and talk to me but I just had to get out.

"My younger sister Kelly, 27, was with me and I turned to her and said, 'Don't be sad, I'm off to work. I'll see you later.'"

After she had some time to think, Michelle went back to her doctor and told him that she although she wanted them to save her life, she wanted to explore all other treatment to preserve bowel function.

She started radiotherapy in October 2016, and trying to keep life as normal as possible, would go straight to work after each session.

After four weeks, scans showed that, although the tumor had shrunk, it was still in her lymph nodes and would require chemotherapy.

In February 2017, she started the first of 12 sessions of but within just five sessions, doctors advised taking a break because it was making her seriously ill.

She said: "After session five 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."

Amazingly, in April 2017, as Michelle started to recover, doctors scanned her again in preparation to restart her chemotherapy and discovered that the tumor was completely gone and the lymph nodes had returned to normal..

Doctors advised that microscopic traces may grow back, and gave her three options – to finish chemotherapy, to have papilion treatment, a very targeted form of internal radiotherapy that can be used when the tumor is much smaller, or to watch and wait.

"I decided to just wait and have regular scans - the hope that it doesn't come back but if it does, they will catch it early and be able to treat it quickly," said Michelle.

"I'm really grateful to all the doctors who worked tirelessly to preserve my bowel function."

Within weeks, Michelle returned to work after two months off for chemotherapy.

She said: "My employer was very supportive throughout everything which meant I could concentrate on my treatment."

Sadly, she did not have time to freeze her eggs before starting treatment, so is unsure whether her fertility has been affected.

On the whole, though, she is staying positive and the experience has made her reevaluate her life.

She said: "The silver lining out of it was that I really bonded with my family. They were amazing throughout, especially my little sister who I live with.

"I am originally from Cork and my family were amazing, taking it in turns to come over and help.

"It completely changed my outlook. When you realise you are not invincible, you start looking at what is important. I always wanted to be seen as this really strong person who doesn't need anybody.

"That illusion was shattered for me during this experience. It was a difficult time but it's changed my life in so many ways."

Michelle is setting up an Instagram account with her sister Kelly, @fordesisters, on the topic's of healing, health, happiness and fashion which will contain lots of positivity for those dealing with illnesses and helpful information which Michelle and Kelly have learned throughout their journey.

MUST Bowel & Cancer Research supports the best research across the UK into bowel cancer and other bowel diseases. Its pioneering and inclusive approach places it in a unique position to understand the impact of these diseases on individuals and their families, friends and colleagues. For more information, please visit: www.bowelcancerresearch.org

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