A mother-of-one has revealed how Facebook saved her life, after a blog shared on a moms' group made her realize she was displaying the symptoms of bowel cancer.
When recruiter Alice Hamley, 40, of Sawbridgeworth, Hertfordshire, first noticed blood in her stools in mid-2017, she initially thought she may have hemorrhoids – swellings containing enlarged blood vessels in or around the bottom.
But then, when she started feeling bloated and exhausted in February 2018, she cast her mind back to Bowel Warrior, a blog by fellow mom Beth Purvis, now 39 – who she has since become friendly with – who was just 37 when she was diagnosed with bowel cancer and shared her experience in a Facebook group.
Alice (PA Real Life/Collect)
With Beth's words ringing in her ears, Alice consulted her GP, pushing for tests to be conducted which, in May 2018, revealed she had bowel cancer.
Since given the all-clear following surgery to remove part of her bowel and three rounds of chemotherapy, Alice said: “Beth was a local mom, roughly the same age as me, who had been diagnosed with bowel cancer.
“She shared her story in the hope of spreading awareness of young women getting bowel cancer, and it played on my mind. It was a lot for a young family to be going through."
She added: “I'm sure that reading Beth's blog helped with my own prognosis. Hearing about the symptoms made me connect the dots.
“Without her, I wouldn't have been as aware of the symptoms, or have pushed for tests when I did. Now, I want to share my own story to, hopefully, help someone else in the same way."
Alice, who has a son, Reuben, four, with her logistics manager husband Asa, 33, had been feeling perfectly healthy until mid-2017, when she began to notice bleeding from her bottom.
I'm sure that reading Beth's blog helped with my own prognosis. Hearing about the symptoms made me connect the dots.
At first, she thought it was just piles but, in time, she also started feeling extremely tired.
“In February 2018, I got flu for the first time and was laid up in bed feeling awful," she said. “I had never been like that before, but it shows how compromised my immune system must have been."
In March 2018, Alice visited her GP for the first time, but was told that she was simply run down.
She continued: “The doctor said I was just exhausted after having flu, together with juggling having a small child with a busy job. But I couldn't get Beth's blog out of my mind. Her voice, talking about the symptoms of bowel cancer, was there again.
“I went home and said to Asa that I wasn't happy, and that I was sure something more was going on, so he encouraged me to go back to the doctor and push for tests."
This time, Alice was given a blood test, revealing that she was anaemic and leading to an urgent referral for a colonoscopy – a test that uses a narrow telescopic camera to look at the lining of the bowel.
Alice (PA Real Life/Collect)
Speaking of the procedure, which took place at Princess Alexandra Hospital in Harlow, Essex, in April 2018, she said: “I tried to stay calm as I knew it could be lots of other things aside from cancer. During the test, doctors found a number of polyps, which are small growths on the inner lining of either the large intestine or rectum, and sent them away for testing.
“As I waited for the results, I tried not to worry. I've always been somebody who only frets about a bad thing once it's actually happened. The way I saw it, I could sit there, afraid, or I could try to be positive. Either way, the results would be the same, so worrying wouldn't help.
“But then, after about two weeks, I got a call saying I needed to come back to hospital for a CT scan. They hadn't said the word cancer at that point, but I think deep down, I knew."
This disease can affect anybody of any age, who leads any lifestyle, from the vegetarian marathon runner to the young mum like me.
On May 18 2018, Alice was given her official diagnosis. Doctors explained that, though the polyps had initially appeared normal, one, on further inspection, turned out to contain cancerous cells.
She continued: “When they said those words, that I had bowel cancer, I was more terrified than I've ever been in my entire life. I was so afraid I was going to die."
On June 6, Alice had a 10-hour operation to remove the part of her bowel surrounding the polyp, as well as some lymph nodes which, again, were sent away for testing.
As a result of the surgery, she also had an ileostomy, where the small bowel is diverted through an opening in the abdomen known as a stoma, over which a special bag is placed to collect waste.
Devastatingly, results soon showed that the disease had spread to her lymph nodes, meaning that she needed chemotherapy.
Recalling how she told her little boy, Alice said: “At first, I'd told Reuben, who was only three then, that I'd need an operation and for everyone to look after me when I was home. He had been coping well with it all, but he wasn't prepared to see me go through chemo. Before that, I'd been recovering from surgery – but now, I was ill."
Alice, Reuben and Asa (PA Real Life/Collect)
She added: “He asked me one day if I was going to die, which was heartbreaking. So, I sat him down and told him everything from the start, explaining what cancer was, and that the chemo was medicine that would make me sick first, but would eventually make me better.
“It was a really candid conversation, but once he had all the facts, he seemed to be able to process it all. Before that, I think he'd been filling in the blanks in his own mind."
After three rounds, Alice finished chemotherapy in October 2018, and was given the all-clear the following month.
She added: “That was surreal. It wasn't the emotional outburst you'd imagine. Instead, I didn't really take it in. On the way home, Asa said to me, 'Did you hear what they said? You're cancer free.'
“It just didn't sink in though. When I was going through everything, it was just a case of head down and get on with it. It's only now the dust has settled I've been able to sit back and begin to process things."
Despite being left with anxiety after everything she has been through, Alice is determined to be positive, so is channelling her energy into raising awareness by working with Bowel Cancer UK and backing their Never Too Young campaign, aiming to give the 2,500 people under 50 diagnosed with bowel cancer in the UK every year a voice.
The signs and symptoms I had were so subtle. If I hadn't been following Beth's blog then I know I would have missed them, or dismissed them.
According to the charity, younger patients often have a very different experience and many report delays in diagnosis and having to visit GPs multiple times before being referred for crucial diagnostic tests.
Speaking out following the launch of their Step Up For 30 campaign, which encourages people to complete 30 minutes of sponsored physical activity every day in June, she said: “Doctors can sometimes look at somebody young and healthy and think that they don't fit the profile for a bowel cancer patient.
“But there is no set profile. This disease can affect anybody of any age, who leads any lifestyle, from the vegetarian marathon runner to the young mom like me."
Alice, who had her ileostomy reversed in January 2019 and is also having regular tests in case her cancer returns, has also spoken movingly about the bond she has formed with Beth, who she plans to meet in person soon.
She concluded: “I messaged her a lot throughout my journey. I first contacted her to tell her about my symptoms, and that GPs hadn't initially seemed worried, then again after my diagnosis to tell her I wasn't actually fine, as I'd hoped.
“The signs and symptoms I had were so subtle. If I hadn't been following Beth's blog then I know I would have missed them, or dismissed them. I certainly wouldn't have pushed back at the GP like I did."
Alice, Reuben and Asa (PA Real Life/Collect)
She concluded: “But now I want to say to others that if there is anything that concerns you please see your GP straight away. Don't wait."
For information, visit www.bowelcanceruk.org.uk/support-us/fundraise/step-up-for-30/