'Hearing I had cancer was like a slap in the face - but I never for one moment believed I was going to die'
In the midst of Bowel Cancer Awareness month, Lottie Hearn tells Arlene Harris an early diagnosis was key to successful treatment
Over 2,700 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer every year in Ireland and while the cause is unknown, it usually occurs in people over the age of 60. But it can, and does, strike at any age and, according to Joan Kelly, cancer support manager with the Irish Cancer Society, some people are more at risk than others.
"A person's risk is higher if they eat a diet high in fat and low in fruit, vegetables and fibre and if they are overweight," she says. "Also, if they have had a previous bowel cancer diagnosis or polyps or indeed if someone in their immediate family has had either."
Those who have had (or a close family member has had) a bowel condition called familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) or hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC or Lynch syndrome) or a history of bowel conditions such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease are also more at risk, Kelly says.
As part of Bowel Cancer Awareness month the ICS aims to get the message across that a healthy diet can help prevent the disease, while an understanding of family history and symptoms can go some way to early detection.
Lottie Hearn didn't have a history of bowel cancer, but when she began experiencing discomfort and pain in her abdominal region, went to the GP who fortunately decided to send her for further tests.
"Back in 2013, I started feeling symptoms of what I thought was irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and, on the advice of a friend, tried eliminating different foods from my diet in order to alleviate the pain," says the 51-year-old. "This didn't make much difference, so I went to see my doctor who advised me to have a colonoscopy.
"I didn't think anything of it as I presumed it was probably something like piles, as I had always been healthy and had a very positive outlook on life. But when I went back to get the results, he told me I had cancer and I can honestly say it was like a slap in the face - I wasn't expecting that news."
Lottie, who is a confidence-on-camera coach, was shocked with the diagnosis, but was determined not to become overwhelmed by it. She made the decision to focus only on getting better and asked her husband to deal with any of the serious aspects of her condition.
"My first reaction after I had gotten over the shock was finding a way to deal with this; I never for one moment believed I was going to die," she says. "I decided that I didn't want to know anything about the disease or its statistics as I'm a bit of a drama queen and if I started googling things I would only end up turning everything into something dramatic - my own disaster movie, as it were. So I asked my husband Steve to do the research, while I decided to focus on the good things in my life and the ways to get through this.
"I sought out people who had been through it before and spent my time actively trying to be positive."
Lottie, who is based in Dun Laoghaire, underwent a successful operation to remove the cancer, but then had to endure several months of wearing a stoma bag while her body recovered from the ordeal.
"The surgery was done quite quickly and the tumour at the end of my colon was removed successfully - I kept positive by telling people I was delighted that my bottom was half the size," she laughs.
"The next step was being fitted with a stoma bag, which was a whole new learning curve. I'm not at all squeamish or worried about accidents happening, but the reality of wearing a stoma bag isn't like the pictures online.
"The images we usually see are of people with totally flat stomachs and I have never had a flat tummy, so I suffered a lot from acid forming under the curve of my stomach, which was very painful. I found my own way of doing things as well and although my stoma team were fantastic - they suggested changing the bag while lying down - I discovered it was easier to do it standing over the bathroom sink as that way, any accidents would be less messy."
The motivational speaker had the bag until April 2014 and was fortunate not to have to undergo chemotherapy or radiotherapy, which, she says, was entirely down to the fact she visited her doctor sooner rather than later.
"I didn't need further treatment because I paid attention to my body and also to the doctor who suggested a colonoscopy," she says. "Even though I thought there wasn't anything too serious wrong with me, I instinctively knew something wasn't right and acted on it straight away.
"The bag was probably the most difficult aspect as no one tells you how long it takes to get used to eating again when half of your insides have been taken away. In the first few weeks, I had to stay very close to home after eating or if I had to go out anywhere, I just wouldn't eat until I returned home as I had to be very close to a toilet. I also learned that it is vital to introduce foodstuffs back into your body very slowly - otherwise your stomach will rebel. And, in fact, for the first two years after my surgery, I had to be within easy reach of a bathroom for the first hour or so after eating."
Almost six years after her initial diagnosis, Lottie is now back to full health, but has had several health scares and side effects.
"In order to get at your bowel, doctors have to shove everything else out of the way and this can unfortunately lead to other complications," she says. "Since my surgery, I have developed cysts and endometriosis and suffered from very painful periods.
"I was told that the cancer may have come back on more than one occasion - thankfully this was a false alarm, but it was very frightening all the same. And recently, I have been suffering from dizziness and other issues which led me to see a neurologist.
"My initial thought was that I had a brain tumour, but early tests suggest that it may be MS, which I can live with, and when I am told that it is definitely not cancer, I will have a party.
"Being positive plays a huge role in good health and I actually think that feeling negative can cause you to feel or even be ill. So I would advise anyone else who has just been diagnosed with something like bowel cancer to stay positive and focused - ignore Google and get others to do research for you. Also, trust your doctor and yourself and remember to seek out the little things which make you smile."
Joan Kelly says there are a number of steps which can be taken to reduce the risk of bowel cancer:
"Firstly, have a healthy diet with at least five portions of fruit and vegetables each day and limit the amount of red and processed meat you eat," she says. "Avoid being overweight or obese, and maintain a healthy body weight and be physically active for at least 30 minutes each day. Don't smoke, limit alcohol intake and be aware of family history. If a member of your family has or had bowel cancer, speak to your doctor about the risk and the need for screening.
"Finally, it's really important that everyone participates in the national bowel screening programme, BowelScreen, which is open to men and women between the ages of 60 and 69. Men in particular are slower to participate, so we would urge all men who are called to do the simple home test.
"During the ICS Bowel Cancer Awareness month, we would encourage people to be aware of its signs and symptoms. They can also take our online Bowel Health Checker to get an assessment of their bowel health, which includes a handy printout for their doctor should it be needed and take the quiz at cancer.ie/bowel health."
Factfile: What are the symptoms?
⬤ Blood in your bowel motion or bleeding from the back passage.
⬤ A lasting change (more than a month) in your normal bowel motion, such as diarrhoea or constipation.
⬤ Feeling you have not emptied your bowel fully after a motion.
⬤ Pain or discomfort in your abdomen (tummy) or back passage.
⬤ Trapped wind or fullness in your tummy.
⬤ Weight loss for no reason.
⬤ Ongoing general tiredness or weakness.
"These symptoms can also be due to complaints other than bowel cancer, but it is important to have them checked by a GP. The earlier bowel cancer is diagnosed, the more treatable it is and the better the outcome will be."
Anyone with concerns or queries can contact the Irish Cancer Society's Cancer Nurseline on 1800 200 700 or call into one of 13 Daffodil Centres based in major hospitals nationwide. Further information on cancer.ie.
Health & Living