‘One more day and I wouldn’t be here’
EVERY Wednesday, Kim Fitzroy and her husband make the two hour journey from their NSW farm to the nearest hospital, so that she can undergo chemotherapy to treat stage four bowel cancer.
Mrs Fitzroy takes nine preliminary drugs and then sits in a chair for between eight and 10 hours while the chemotherapy drugs are pumped into her system.
She is one of the hundreds of thousands of Australians with bowel cancer, one of the most common types of cancer and also one of the most easily cured.
"No one wants to talk about poo and it can be confronting. But the test is easy to do and most bowel cancers are curable," Mrs Fitzroy told news.com.au. "If something doesn't feel right, just do the test."
Sydney colorectal surgeon and bowel cancer specialist Professor Les Bokey says early diagnosis is the key to being cured.
"It's one of the very few curable cancers, provided it is diagnosed early. The cure rate is outstanding," Professor Bokey said.
"Early tests will detect blood in the faeces. But most of the people with a positive test don't have cancer and the majority of patients with bowel cancer don't end up with a [colostomy] bag. Most people are terrified about that, which is understandable. But it's not common," he said.
Ms Fitzroy's cancer was first detected after a nasty bout of food poisoning in March 2016. Her doctor took a stool sample and found there was a bug growing in her faeces.
"I wasn't concerned about it. I just didn't think it was something I needed to worry about. I just lived my life normally," Ms Fitzroy said.
She was still exercising most days, but soon started to feel unwell and was vomiting regularly. At one point after a family dinner, she felt incredibly bloated and her stomach was rapidly expanding.
"My stomach had extended out and it was really swollen. I knew something wasn't quite right. I started vomiting again and when I went into the hospital they said I needed to have emergency surgery," she said.
"[My stomach] was very close to exploding. My bowel was extended to 7cm and 9cm is when it explodes. The registrar said to my dad 'One more day and she wouldn't be here."
Doctors found a large tumour in her belly. Over a period of about 15 months, she lived with two colostomy bags.
"It was a total shock. It was very hard. I got very sick from the first round of chemotherapy and had severe diarrhoea," she said.
"I couldn't do the bag myself. My mum was there and she would help. I remember thinking 'That is the epitome of love'. I don't know if I could do that. I would lie down and Mum would change it for me and would clean it. I couldn't deal with the smell."
It put a strain on her marriage and her self esteem.
"Intimacy was a massive issue. It was very difficult. Our relationship was tested. It's been tested a lot. I wouldn't be naked with him. I would just wear a singlet to cover it. You get used to wearing it. You wear clothes that are a bit looser so you can't see it. But he's [my husband] been incredible and it's brought us a lot closer," she said.
Mrs Fitzroy initially tried to hide the colostomy bag from her two young children, but soon decided to be open and honest with them.
"I was very aware of not letting them see it and I would take it off and shower and put a new one on. One time I remember my daughter came in - she was four at the time - a said 'Mum what is that on your tummy?' and I was just really honest with her and said 'This is how mummy poos'. She said 'Mum, that's really gross', but I explained to her that this is what I have to do."
Mrs Fitroy says she tries to maintain a positive attitude about her diagnosis, but not every day is easy.
"If anyone was to see me, I look normal. I don't look like someone who has stage 4 bowel cancer. I find that it's much easier to be positive when people around you are positive.
"But I'm not positive all the time. I have shitty days. The chemo I've been on for the past three months has been particularly demanding and I've been having allergic reactions to it.
"It's exhausting and it's exhausting for my husband because he's watching his wife be poisoned. In a lot of ways it's harder for the people around me, because they have no control.
"He just wants to fix it. Some men are fixers and when they can't fix something they feel a bit helpless. He is terrified of raising two little girls by himself. But we are a long, long way from that.
"I still manage to do 90 per cent of what a normal 38-year-old woman with small children can do."
Doctors gave her six months to live. She is now coming up on two years since diagnosis.
"People do survive Stage 4 cancer. I was always adamant that I was going to survive," she said.
"You don't take anything for granted. I was given an expiration date and it forced me to do that. I appreciate every single second of every single day. You don't know how much time you have."