Coming to terms with an unexpected cancer diagnosis

Kate was 36 years old when she was diagnosed with stage 3 bowel cancer. As a fit and healthy young woman, it came as a complete shock. Since her diagnosis, Kate has had chemotherapy and surgery at London Bridge Hospital, part of HCA Healthcare UK. Now cancer free, she shares her story, and the advice she has for those with symptoms.

Kate 2 Coming to terms with an unexpected cancer diagnosis

Kate, based in Kingston-Upon-Thames, was away on a work trip in June 2021 when she first noticed blood in her stool. Aware that this needed to be investigated, Kate booked an appointment to see her GP and two days later had a phone consultation. 

Kate says: "As soon as I noticed the blood, I knew I needed to get it investigated. A close friend of mine had recently been diagnosed with bowel cancer and so I was well aware of the red flags that you need to look out for. However, I felt physically fine in myself and didn’t think it would be anything serious. I was quite stressed with work at the time, so I thought this could have something to do with it. But I knew that I needed to get it investigated."

Kate’s GP did some initial investigations including a stool sample and a physical examination, but when her symptoms persisted without explanation, her GP referred her for a colonoscopy.

Kate had private medical insurance through her workplace and, keen to be seen as quickly as possible, she contacted her insurer. The next week, she had an initial consultation with Mr Andrew Williams, Consultant Colorectal Surgeon at London Bridge Hospital, part of HCA Healthcare UK, who then carried out the colonoscopy.

A confirmed diagnosis

During Kate’s colonoscopy, Mr Williams found polyps, a non-cancerous growth that can over time develop into cancer. He also found a tumour in Kate’s bowel. He believed the tumour was cancerous but would need to carry out some tests to confirm the diagnosis, as well as the stage and type.

Kate shares: "It came as such a shock to me as I felt fit and healthy and was only 36 years old. I had attended the appointment alone as everything had felt very routine up until this point – I immediately called my partner and got him to come to the hospital. Mr Williams then removed the polyps and said he would speak to me that afternoon about next steps."

Mr Williams arranged an MRI scan and a CT scan. In the meantime, he referred Kate to his colleague, Consultant Colorectal Surgeon Mr Mark George, who also practices at London Bridge Hospital. He would be able talk Kate through her tests results and discuss next steps.

Waiting for the results was the hardest part – the uncertainty was difficult to handle. I wanted to be able to have a plan of action and solve everything immediately. However, the day of these scans was made a little easier by the fact that my partner and I decided to get engaged – what we’d been through so far had put everything into perspective.

Finding the right treatment plan

A few days later, Kate met with Mr George. He explained that she had stage 3 bowel cancer, that it was a relatively big tumour and it looked like her lymph nodes could be affected, but that the cancer was treatable and potentially curable."There was a lot to take in during my conversation with Mr George, but the main phrase that stuck in my head was ‘treatable and curable’ ", added Kate.

Mr George talked through a personal treatment plan with Kate, which involved chemotherapy first to target the tumour and reduce its size, followed by surgery to remove the tumour and any surrounding cancerous tissue. When discussing the treatment options and side effects of therapy, Kate was made aware that her fertility would likely be affected.

"I don’t have any children and wanted to be able to have the opportunity to have children in the future, so I needed to consider fertility treatment before starting my cancer treatment. Given my diagnosis and the level of treatment I was recommended, I decided to seek a couple of other medical opinions to understand whether fertility treatment, followed by chemotherapy and then surgery, was right for me.

Seeking those opinions gave me the reassurance I needed. I proceeded with IVF treatment – which was successful, and I was lucky enough to be able to freeze five embryos."

Once Kate’s fertility treatment was complete, she was referred to Clinical Oncologist Dr Asad Qureshi at London Bridge Hospital, and it was then that she was able to begin having chemotherapy:

Before undergoing chemotherapy, I was most worried that it would make me feel sick and tired all of the time, but I didn’t have that issue and instead I experienced extreme neuropathy – nerve damage that affected feeling and movement in my hands, feet and mouth and was worse the colder it became. Whilst I was experiencing these symptoms, I would speak to my Clinical Nurse Specialist at London Bridge Hospital, who was amazing at giving me advice and telling me what I could do to ease symptoms.

After four cycles of chemotherapy, the decision was made to operate to remove the tumour and Kate was referred back to Mr Mark George. At the beginning of January 2022, Kate had her bowel surgery - which included a temporary stoma, to allow her bowel to heal after surgery. Kate’s surgery was a complete success, and her recovery was much quicker than anticipated – the day after surgery Kate was standing up, on day two she could walk around a little bit and manage some stairs and by day five she was able to leave hospital. Whilst in hospital, Kate spent time with the stoma nurse, learning how best to handle her temporary stoma.

Kate commented: “I think before having my stoma fitted, I expected it to leak or explode, but actually I have been able to deal with it a lot better than I thought. My stoma nurse has been great at giving advice and not being afraid to ask or answer awkward questions. I’m grateful of course that my stoma is temporary – I can’t say I will miss it!

Kate in hospital

Hearing the news

Two weeks after surgery, Kate returned to London Bridge Hospital to receive her histology reports and learn whether she would need additional treatment: "Mr George told me that the tumour was bigger than expected when removed, but thankfully it had only affected one lymph node. Most importantly, I was cancer free and I wouldn’t need any more chemotherapy. It was such a complete and utter relief to hear those words, as I had built myself up to the fact that I would need more treatment."

Kate’s temporary stoma will now be reversed, and she will have blood tests every three months as well as an annual colonoscopy and CT scan, to monitor any changes.

Kate says: "Physically, I’m free of cancer, and that is the most amazing thing, and I can’t thank my medical team enough for giving me the very best care possible, but mentally, it has been a lot to get my head around. I didn’t feel unwell to being with, and then had to come to the terms with the fact that I had cancer, and now to be told that it’s over and I’m well again – it's a lot to take in and very much a rollercoaster that I don’t feel like I’m off of just yet."

Kate is looking forward to returning to work and getting to travel the world again. Following her experience, she has some valuable advice to those who might be worried about symptoms: "Listen to your body and don’t be afraid to talk to your GP about your symptoms – it's never going to be a bad thing to get yourself checked out. I was also only 36 years old when I was diagnosed, so I think it’s important that you don’t have the mentality of – ‘it won’t happen to me’. Be vigilant and don’t ignore what your body is telling you."