Jody was living her best life until she missed the early warning signs that led to soul-crushing bowel cancer diagnosis

Jody was living her best life until she missed the early warning signs that led to soul-crushing bowel cancer diagnosis
  • PublishedJune 10, 2024

‘Looking back now, there were many symptoms that I explained away as other things.’

Jody Horne was young, healthy and living her best life when her world came crashing down.

The marketing professional, from Melbourne, was given a devastating bowel cancer diagnosis just weeks before her 29th birthday — after she missed three early warning signs.

The then-28-year-old began experiencing unexplained symptoms — including tiredness and signs of blood in her stool — but she didn’t think anything of it.

Five months later, she knew something wasn’t right when she suffered a five-hour bowel bleed.

Receiving her results after having waited in a hospital room with her sister, she was told she had rectal cancer, a type of bowel cancer that affects the rectum.

“I was young and enjoying life and then the carpet pulled out from underneath me,” Jody, now 34, tells 7Life.

“I felt shocked and numb. It was an incredibly upsetting experience… My younger sister became unwell when the doctor began delivering the news, she could see how sorry he was telling me that I had cancer.

“It was beyond crushing for us both in that moment.”

Before her shock diagnosis in early 2018, Jody was a typical 28-year-old single woman living in the inner suburbs of Melbourne.

At the time, she was working in marketing, practising yoga, watching the footy and enjoying brunch with her friends.

For months, she noticed blood and mucus in her stool, felt pretty tired at times and experienced minor discomfort around her rectum area — but she brushed the symptoms off.

“Looking back now, there were many symptoms that I explained away as other things,” she says.

“It’s easy to dismiss symptoms when you’re young, but if there’s something I’ve learned in all of this, it’s really important to try not to explain things away, and rather to consult an expert — investigation, curiosity and advocating for yourself might save your life.”

In mid-2018, Jody had a serious bowel bleed that lasted up to five fours — though she says she felt “fortunate” to have experienced the symptom.

“It sounds like a strange thing to feel fortunate about, but this alarming symptom prompted an immediate investigation,” she says.

“I took myself to an after hours medical clinic where the doctor said to go to Emergency if the bleeding didn’t stop soon, and if it did, to see a gastroenterologist.

“The bleeding slowed and eventually stopped.”

Jody underwent five-and-a-half weeks of daily pelvic radiation and chemotherapy.

As a precaution, she booked herself in to see a gastroenterologist as soon as she could get an appointment.

“A couple of weeks later, the gastroenterologist performed a sigmoidoscopy (a type of test used to screen for rectal cancers) which detected a polyp,” she says.

“He recommended that I have a colonoscopy to remove the polyp.”

After getting a colonoscopy, a surgeon told her he had found a tumour — but she needed to get a biopsy to determine whether or not it was cancerous.

Just two weeks before she turned 29, Jody was diagnosed with stage two rectal cancer.

“At first I was in disbelief and then I just felt completely out of my depths, not knowing what to do,” she says.

“I called my dad to see if he was in the city that day for work, but he wasn’t. I had to tell him over the phone what had just happened.

“It was the most awful thing I’ve ever had to tell my dad, then my mum, siblings and friends.

“It’s so hard to think about that time.”

As it began to sink in over the next few weeks, Jody says she never imagined young people like her could get bowel cancer.

It is estimated that more than 15,300 Australians were diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2023 — with the average age being 69.

Jody at one of her many radiation treatments.

“I honestly thought it was only something that impacted older people,” she says.

“So it’s hard knowing that a big part of catching this came down to luck and chance.

“I had a bowel bleed, I was lucky to have a clinician who took my symptoms seriously, and to have access to a relatively timely colonoscopy — an investigation that saved my life.

“Not every young person has this experience.”

Dealing with a cancer diagnosis has always been challenging for Jody — especially after losing two loved ones to the disease.

“When I was younger, I lost a close friend to Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and I lost my grandmother to bowel cancer around six years earlier,” she says.

“So, the experiences I’d had with cancer to that point were devastating; it was frightening to live and experience those things happening to my loved ones, and then to face it myself.

“There was a self-preservation mode that activated, I withdrew quite a bit.

“So that was challenging too — a lot about me and life as I knew it changed really quickly.”

Jody looking positive during her cancer journey.

However, Jody points out that her cancer was not hereditary, despite having been diagnosed with the same condition as her grandmother.

“I’ve had genetic testing and it’s not the cause,” she says.

“I’m passionate about people knowing that you can still be at risk without family history of bowel cancer.”

During her cancer journey, she underwent treatments including five-and-a-half weeks of daily pelvic radiotherapy and chemotherapy.

“I was pleased that I managed to work during this time, though it was quite challenging, particularly towards the end of the course,” she says.

“I almost fell asleep in an MRI machine, and for anyone who has had one of those, that’s saying something about how fatigued I was at that point.

“I then waited for the radiation to do its thing, shrinking the tumour to allow the surgeons enough margin to be able to reconnect my bowel to the anus.”

The healthy 35-year-old has been enjoying her life cancer free.

Jody was fitted with a “life-saving” temporary ileostomy during two major surgeries to allow the join to heal.

“I then had a port-a-cath inserted, and began around five months of ‘mop-up’ chemo. This was precautionary given how close my tumour appeared to my lymph nodes.

“I then had the reversal of the stoma/ileostomy, and began to use my bowels again.

“I’m fortunate because I have regained control — though at times, it can be really painful and challenging to hold, as my rectum was mostly removed during the surgery.”

She also underwent a fertility preservation process to preserve some of her eggs.

Despite the radiation treatment being successful in shrinking her tumour, it has impacted her ovaries and uterus.

“I’m now in early, treatment-induced menopause and I am taking hormone replacement therapy,” she explains.

“My uterus has been impacted, meaning I’ve been advised by specialists, because of the amount of radiation I’ve had to my pelvis, that it’s very unlikely I could safely carry a pregnancy.

“Having a family will look very different now (surrogacy or adoption) from how I might have imagined it to look.”

Jody has been cancer free over the years after being given the all-clear.

“I feel grateful to have come out the other side as I know that not everyone is so lucky. We walk around and don’t think about our mortality, that our time here is short,” she says.

However, most days, Jody says she is “physically reminded” of her health condition.

“I experience sensitivity with my digestive system, I have to watch what I eat, at times I have aches and pains in my hips, tailbone and pelvis area from scar tissue and, I guess, trauma to the area,” she says.

“Sometimes I experience sharp pains in my stomach and often in my bowels.

“It’s not easy on the other side of it all, but I am truly thankful to be here.”

Jody says there are times when she finds her day-to-day life challenging mentally.

“It’s easy to think, ‘I survived, now I need to make my time here valuable’ — that survivor guilt, it really lingers, but I’m working on it.

“Cancer impacted all areas of my life — financially, my career, my friendships and social connections, what a family will look like for me in the future — but it’s also shaped who I am and helped me to see what is truly important.”

The marketing professional was given a devastating bowel cancer diagnosis just weeks before her 29th birthday.

Bowel cancer is the fourth most commonly diagnosed cancer in Australia.

If detected early, the chance of successful treatment and long-term survival improves significantly.

Not all bowel cancers show symptoms — but common signs include blood in stool, abdominal pain or bloating, constipation, diarrhoea, unexplained weight loss, tiredness, weakness or breathlessness.

Jody urges everyone to look out for signs.

“These are the symptoms that you should look out for, and importantly, talk about and share with your loved ones,” she says.

“There’s no taboo about poo, it’s just an aspect of our health; we need to talk more about it and we need to break down the stigma.

“Blood is never normal in your stool. If it’s a lot or a little it’s always worth investigating.”

Signs and symptoms of bowel cancer

  • Blood in your poo or rectal bleeding
  • A recent, persistent change in bowel habit (e.g. diarrhoea, constipation or the feeling of incomplete emptying)
  • A change in the shape or appearance of your poo (e.g. narrower poos or mucus in poo)
  • Abdominal pain or swelling
  • Pain or a lump in the anus or rectum
  • Unexplained anaemia causing tiredness, weakness or weight loss
She hopes by sharing her story, she can prevent young person from going through what she went through. 

Jody says a friend she met during their cancer journey gave her the courage to share her story.

“Sarah Foster had stage four bowel cancer at just 34. She lived and dared greatly. She was the kind of person who made everyone around her feel special and really seen,” she recalls.

“We became fast friends supporting each other through treatments, and scans, and worries that came up but were too hard to share with others who, despite all efforts, couldn’t understand what it was like to face cancer.

“I will forever be grateful for knowing Sarah, for every way that she was there for me, for having a comrade during this time, and I feel hopeful that I was able to make her experience just a little bit less scary, and lonely.

“Sarah passed away in November 2020.”

Jody says her late friend Sarah Foster, left, gave her the courage to share her story. 

Jody hopes by speaking out, she can prevent young people from going through what she went through.

“If I can save a life, it’s all worth it,” she says.

“Bowel cancer doesn’t care if you’re at the peak of your career, or if you’ve just started a family — the truth is, young people can and do get bowel cancer.

“It’s not something I was aware of until it happened to me, and I know how lucky I am to have caught it early.

“If you take anything away from my story, let it be this: If something doesn’t feel right, and it’s been like that now for a couple of weeks, advocate for yourself, get checked, be persistent.

“You’re the only one who knows what’s going on inside you, and what may feel off or unusual.

“It doesn’t mean it’s going to be sinister, but it’s better to check.

“Choose curiosity over fear.”

SOURCE: 7NEWS

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