A sporty woman has told of her horror after discovering what she thought was a hernia was actually stage four bowel cancer.
Finding a lump in her abdomen one morning two years ago, Heidi Cresswell, 38 – a keen cyclist and snowboarder – saw her GP believing she had a hernia, caused by an internal part of the body pushing through a weakness in the muscle or surrounding tissue wall.
Heidi, a knitting magazine journalist, who lives in Great Braxted, Essex, with her IT consultant husband, Peter, 37, and their cats, Arnie and Poppy, said:
“I’m quite sporty and thought maybe I’d given myself a hernia, as I knew they could be caused by physical exertion.”
Heidi at the gym before her diagnosis (PA Real Life/Collect)
“I’d been feeling under the weather – a little bit feverish and not quite right – but I thought maybe I was just coming down with the flu.”
Sent straight to the hospital for tests by her doctor, within a week Heidi and Peter received the devastating news that she had stage four bowel cancer, which had spread to her lymph nodes.
“As I heard those words, I felt like the room had started spinning,” she recalled.
“It was just a surreal moment and at one point I thought I was going to black out.”
Heidi after her surgery (PA Real Life/Collect)
The eldest of three siblings, despite losing both sets of her grandparents to cancer, Heidi said she had never thought she would have it herself.
“Yes, my grandparents had cancer but they were all in their 80s – not my age,” she said.
“The diagnosis was a huge shock. I just wasn’t expecting it.”
Another shock came when she realised that her surgery to remove 1kg of cancerous bowel, at The London Clinic on Harley Street in September 2016, would mean she had to have a stoma bag to collect her waste, attached to an opening on the front of her abdomen.
Heidi and Peter in Flatford Mill, Essex, just before Christmas 2018 (PA Real Life/Collect)
“Before the surgery, I was told there was a very low chance I would have a stoma, but I remember coming to from the operation and hearing one of the nurses saying, ‘She’s got a stoma,’” she recalled.
“I started crying because I just didn’t know how I was going to deal with it. It’s just not something you expect to have as a young person."
“It was so difficult to come to terms with the fact my waste would be in a bag, which I would have to wear all the time and deal with making noises in the middle of the cinema. But actually, I did get used to it. It does become a normal part of life.”
Heidi and Peter in Austria, early 2019 (PA Real Life/Collect)
One of the ways Heidi dealt with her cancer treatment, which as well as the stoma bag, involved two further operations and eight rounds of chemotherapy over the next six months, was by heeding her husband’s advice to be stubborn.
“Peter is my rock, but I didn’t know how he was going to get through it all, so I was crying one day and apologizing for putting him through such an ordeal."
“He just turned round and said, ‘I’m sorry I can’t find a way to fix this. I don’t know how to fix this, so I need you to be stubborn.’ So I was.’”
Luckily, as surgeons caught the cancer in its early stages and cut it out, Heidi’s treatment was a success and, following the third bowel operation in July 2017, her doctors declared that she was cancer free and, to her relief, took away her stoma bag.
Sadly, however, her relief was short-lived, because just a year later in July 2018, a routine CT scan showed the cancer was back and her treatment resumed – with more surgery planned to remove any remaining lymph nodes that contain cancerous cells in May 2019.
Heidi, who is speaking out during the UK's Bowel Cancer Awareness Month and being supported by the charity Bowel Cancer UK, continued:
“There is not as much cancer this time, so we started with chemotherapy, which is working.”
Heidi showing her stoma bag (PA Real Life/Collect)
“In September 2018, Peter and I decided to have IVF before I started chemo the following month, and now have two embryos frozen so can hopefully one day start a family when this is all over.”
Throughout her grueling treatment – which has also seen her needing additional surgery after an infection turned part of her bowel gangrenous, and suffering a punctured lung caused by the routine insertion of a Hickman line to deliver the chemotherapy drugs – Heidi has dreamed of returning to work and to writing.
“People talk a lot about the treatments and the diagnosis, but nobody talks about what it all does to your mental health,” said Heidi.
Heidi during chemotherapy with her cats, Poppy and Arnie (PA Real Life/Collect)
“When I was told I was cancer free the first time, instead of being elated I was depressed and really struggling to find a life past all the treatment."
“One of the doctors told me it is a form of post-traumatic stress disorder, but it’s not something that gets talked about and it should be.”
To combat the stress of it all, Heidi has kept a diary recording her cancer journey, which she now hopes to publish as a book, and is also writing a blog called Five Things About Cancer.
Heidi and Peter in Germany, summer 2018 – before she knew the cancer was back (PA Real Life/Collect)
“When you’re so ill and having treatment, you can’t face reading long articles about the condition and how to cope, so I sort of boil it down to a shortened version of what’s happening,” she said. “It includes what you need to know and how I am living with bowel cancer."
“It can feel very lonely going through cancer. Even when you have fantastic support like I have, you do still think nobody else knows what you’re going through."
“The mental strain is enormous and not something people really talk about, which is what I really want to change. That and encouraging more awareness that a cancer we think only older people get can affect younger people, like me, too.”
Follow Heidi’s blog at fivethingsaboutcancer.home.blog/blog