To her four children, Sarah Stewart is the best sandwich artist, the master tucker-inner and the ultimate cuddler. She’s their world and they are hers. However, for several months, Sasha, Colby, Scarlett and Logan Stewart were faced with the very real possibility of growing up without their mum.
In 2016, at just 33 years of age, Sarah was diagnosed with bowel cancer, something she knew next to nothing about. She was a stay-at-home mum, living in Adelaide, with 4 kids under six.
Now, five years after Sarah’s initial diagnosis, she shares her story with Mum Central in hopes of reminding other women to trust their instinct. If something seems wrong, don’t be afraid to speak up.
The diagnosis – ‘I thought this was it’
As Sarah tells Mum Central, she always suffered from irritable bowel but these issues tended to go away during pregnancy. As she spent a fair few years pregnant in her late 20s and early 30s, she didn’t think much of the occasional bowel problem.
Although doctors did check every type of bowel issue, she was never given a colonoscopy.
However, in May 2016, something changed when she started to experience terrible stomach pains.
By the time I got into the doctor I fainted with the pain and he sent me straight to the hospital where they proceeded to do a laparotomy.
They thought it was a gynecology problem but once in there they realised that everything was healthy there. They then called in the bowel surgeons. He said that I had a bowel infection and that I probably had diverticulitis and needed to change my diet.”
Diverticulitis is common in those over 50, but not so common for people in their 30s. However, it does happen so Sarah left with instructions to change her diet.
For the following 3 weeks, I was back and forth from my doctor as I felt like I had a bladder infection. The doctor kept saying it’s the infection pushing on my bladder.Finally, at the 3 week mark, he referred me to a surgeon who suggested I have a colonoscopy. That was the day I was told I had cancer.I came out of surgery and the doctor gave me the news right away. My hubby came in and I was a mess. I thought this was it. However, I had four babies at home that needed me.”
The road to recovery
The next year was the hardest year of Sarah’s life. It started with every scan under the sun and more bad news – cancer had spread to her bladder and uterus.
The tumour itself was 90mm located in the bowel, but because it had spread, Sarah lost her bladder, uterus, one ovary and her appendix, as well as 300ml of her bowel.
I was told I had the tumour for a very long time. It was very slow-growing. I was quite surprised it wasn’t picked up during any of my ultrasounds, but they aren’t looking for cancer. They are looking at the baby.”
After the surgery, Sarah endured chemo. – 12 rounds in 12 months.e
I was smashed. It was like gastro on steroids. I lost 14kgs in a week. The chemo killed my nerves so I still have numb tips of the fingers and pins and needles in my feet. My hair isn’t the same, I’ve become prone to inflamed rosacea on my face and my teeth are slowly deteriorating which from what I’ve heard is extremely common.
As for having no bladder I have a stoma on my stomach and attached is an ileostomy bag. I also have to attach a night bag at night to help with the drainage. It leaks all the time always when I’m out and so then I have to leave and change! I wet the bed, which is highly annoying.
However, I made it through the other end.”
An unexpected diagnosis
In 2017, Sarah was deemed cancer-free. However, during her treatment, she also discovered she has Lynch Syndrome. This is an inherited genetic mutation that gives people an increased chance of developing certain cancers across their lifetime, often at a younger age than the general population.
We had no idea that I had it. It came from my mum’s side which is unusual because my dad had cancer at the time as well.”
Cancers include bowel cancer, endometrial cancer (lining of the uterus), ovarian cancer, stomach cancer, hepatobiliary cancer (liver/gallbladder), urinary tract cancer, kidney cancer, pancreatic cancer, brain cancer and skin cancer.
Sarah now goes for scans every six months and admits that her anxiety levels are through the roof every time. It never gets easier. However, it’s part of her life now.
I am not the same as I used to be. I’m still tired all the time. I’m a ticking time bomb and cancer can pop up anywhere in me. But I’m so grateful I’m here, able to watch my children grow.”
Sarah’s eldest, Sasha is now 11, while her youngest, Logan is 6.
Sarah hopes that her story inspires other mums to trust their gut instinct. If something doesn’t feel right, don’t brush it off. So many busy parents put their own health last.
People think bowel cancer is an old person’s cancer and it’s not. You can see how many young people are affected by it.”
Thanks for sharing your story with us Sarah, and for being a real reminder to us all that we shouldn’t ignore the warning signs or a niggling feeling that just doesn’t go away.
For more information, visit Bowel Cancer Australia.