The disease has spread beyond the bowel and in my case, into my liver and lungs (Photo: Patrick Wymer)I was diagnosed with stage four bowel cancer in June 2017.
It all happened very quickly; several weeks after first visiting my GP with mild stomach pains, I had an emergency operation to remove a large tumour from my bowel.
Stage four essentially means that the disease has spread beyond the bowel – and in my case, into my liver and lungs.
It’s incurable with fewer than 10 per cent of stage four bowel cancer patients living for more than five years.
I’m nearly two years in already.
After the operation I had the pleasure of being given a stoma, an opening in my abdomen through which my poo passes into a bag. This almost came as a bigger shock than the cancer itself.
But with help from the amazing specialist stoma nurses, it has become surprisingly easy to live with and, frankly, is now the least of my concerns.
I’ve been on regular chemotherapy to try and keep the disease in check for as long as possible.
The treatment is gruelling, and the side effects can leave me terribly fatigued for several days.
Until recently, it seemed to be working well, but my most recent scan showed some increase in the size of the tumours in my lungs. And so, my treatment continues.
How do I cope? The biggest challenge is acceptance.
Before being diagnosed at 52, I had a reasonable life expectancy of perhaps 30 or more years. I’ve had to recalibrate and think in terms of possibly only a matter of months.
I continue to occupy this awkward space, sandwiched between my pre-cancer life and probable early death.
Such a dramatic adjustment takes a lot of getting used to, but it’s focused my mind very much on the here and now, and forced me to evaluate what is most important in life.
Bizarrely that’s been quite a positive change for me – savouring and enjoying the present moment.
I’ve built a new life for myself and it is, in its own way, satisfying.
I write a blog, read, walk, spend way too much time on social media and drinking coffee in local cafes.
In my pre-cancer life, it had never occurred to write a blog, but I find it therapeutic to articulate how I feel about my illness and it’s very satisfying to see that others appear to enjoy reading it.
I’m involved with Bowel Cancer UK and Velindre Cancer Centre in Cardiff, where I receive my treatment, fundraising and increasing awareness of the disease.
With more time on my hands than I’ve ever had, it helps me to have some purpose.
More importantly, these are two fantastic organisations that in different ways have helped me hugely and quite literally kept me alive. It’s a genuine pleasure to be able to give something back to them.
Yet I continue to occupy this awkward space, sandwiched between my pre-cancer life and probable early death.
There’s a lot of chat in the cancer world about the importance of maintaining a ‘positive attitude’.
I often think this can put undue pressure on people – surely we’re permitted to have negative feelings when dealing with such a brutal disease.
I’m fortunate to have the support of fantastic family and friends who help in keeping me mentally strong. Since cancer reared its ugly head, I’ve come to appreciate time spent with them even more.
That said, there really is no substitute for sharing with others who’ve been through the same or similar experiences.
Through my blog, social media and my involvement with Bowel Cancer UK, I’ve encountered so many others living with cancer and been fortunate to meet and form friendships with some of them.
It’s such a benefit to be able to share practical information about coping with bowel cancer, giving and receiving moral support or simply just sharing a joke.
I’ve made a point of being as frank as possible about my illness as increasing awareness and demystifying aspects of the disease, such as having a stoma, are ways in which I can hopefully make some positive contribution.
I do have my moments though.
Cancer can be psychologically draining and it’s so tough on family and loved ones – something that’s frequently forgotten.
While we do support one another, inevitably we all have low times when acceptance is a huge challenge.
I sometimes wonder if I’m in denial about the seriousness of my illness – there may be some truth in cliches you hear about that.
I feel well when I’m not on chemo, so it’s often difficult to imagine that I’m extremely ill. I try and enjoy life to the full and it’s not easy to think of that coming to a premature end.
People are frequently surprised to learn that bowel cancer is the fourth most common cancer in the UK and the second biggest cancer killer.
It often goes under the radar when compared to other cancers.
This may be due to taboos surrounding bowels and poo and embarrassment – particularly among men – and about discussing symptoms with doctors.
The positive news is that if diagnosed in the early stages, bowel cancer is very treatable and the survival rates are good.
However, these deteriorate significantly if the disease is not detected until its advanced stages.
You really don’t want to end up in my situation so please, do act quickly if you experience any possible symptoms.
For obvious reasons I can’t look too far into the future. I simply hope to keep going for as long as I can and continue to enjoy life.
I do think a lot about my wife and family, and how things will be for them when I’m gone.
But I take comfort in the fact that they’re strong and I know they will get through these difficult times.
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