Back in December, I had a positive FIT test. In the UK, this diagnostic test for bowel cancer is routinely offered to everyone between the ages of 60 and 74. This was too late to save my uncle, who was diagnosed at stage 4 in his mid-50s and died in 2019. And it wasn’t a test that existed when both my grandfathers died from bowel cancer in the 80s and 90s.
I’m obviously much younger than any of them. But of course I feel quite aware of the potential risk of developing cancer, given my family history (my uncle’s young age at diagnosis is considered a particular risk factor), which may predispose me toward developing it. Early last year I even tried to do a private FIT test, having decided that for my own peace of mind I’d do one every three years or so now I was moving into a slightly higher risk age group. But the testing company lost my test. I was annoyed, asked for my £50 back and never got around to doing another.
At the end of November I was feeling run down and had various symptoms, none of which were very worrying, but I wanted to see the GP for my own peace of mind. I think it’s quite common when you’ve been widowed to have more health anxiety than usual. I worry about getting sick and not being able to take care of my daughter. One way for me of managing that is to try to be proactive about any niggles and nip them in the bud.
So I thought maybe I’d have a vitamin deficiency, if anything showed up at all. I was very surprised – and then alarmed – when the GP’s receptionist rang and said I needed to speak to the GP about my test results as soon as possible, and then from looking at my NHS records myself (a blessing and a curse to be able to access them, I guess!) I saw I not only had a positive FIT score but a score that would indicate the need for urgent referral via the NHS two week cancer diagnostic pathway.
That evening I was actually quite hysterical, which is not usual for me. I have faced a lot of health issues – I’ve had three blood clots in my lung! – and mostly carried them quite calmly. I knew that the FIT is a very sensitive test and that the positive result can be a sign of all sorts of other, non-malignant things. That in fact 90% of people who get a positive result don’t have cancer. But that evening, when my daughter was in bed, I sobbed and sobbed – and told Kieran how furious I am that he left me to deal with this, and that if I did have cancer I wasn’t going to give up like he did.
That’s not a thought I’m proud of, but I’m not ashamed of it either. While my rational mind fully understands that suicide is not a “choice” in a meaningful way, something I’ve been learning to embrace via EMDR therapy is that my emotions, however ugly and undisciplined, deserve my care and attention. And that it is alright to feel anger and disappointment in my grief as well as other kinds of pain.
The next day I was ready to start pulling myself together and keep moving forward. The NHS sprang into action, and I must say I had exemplary care – I had a telephone consultation before Christmas, and a colonoscopy not long after. The process of doing that was not pleasant but also not as bad as I feared, possibly because I planned very carefully and stuck to the preparation guidelines rigorously. On the day I checked into the hospital at 8:15 and was out by 10:30! The colonoscopy found no signs of cancer. There were a couple of minor issues noted that may have caused the positive test and I have had biopsies done. But these are routine and unlikely, touch wood, to bring up anything sinister. In a weird way it was interesting and comforting to see the inside of a body part that plays such a big role in our daily lives but is hidden from us!
Of course, I talked to my therapist about all of this. About how when you’re widowed young, it can seem more likely that something else bad will happen, because your sense of safety has been shattered. Also, if you use support groups with other widowed people, you will have found friendship BUT also heard a lot of stories about how people’s seemingly healthy spouses had cancer or heart attacks or were in car crashes. I kept coming back to the same thought – I can’t leave my little girl by herself.
Anyway, obviously I’m ok. Maybe one day I won’t be! None of us get out of this world alive, after all. For widowed people reading this, I know that health scares are stressful at the best of times, but they are the absolute pits when your partner isn’t there to hold your hand or talk you down or just pick up the slack at home. I’m lucky to have wonderful friends and family, but there’s a kind of support you get (or should get) from a life partner that isn’t easily replicated elsewhere. I missed that a good deal in December.
But I also felt proud that despite my anxiety and grief and fear, I was able to pick myself up and keep moving forward. That I acknowledged my fear directly with several loved ones, instead of trying to diminish and hide it. That I accepted their offers of comfort, instead of turning inward into my own pain. That as I have found again and again these past two years, I’m perfectly capable of standing on my own two feet – but that I have a lot of hands willing to catch me if I fall. Increasingly I feel that western society’s preoccupation with the nuclear family is a harm to it, and that we would be better served developing more deeply our wider social networks, of not expecting all our needs to be met at home. I carry some terrible wounds, from Kieran’s death and also things that happened in the time before it, but that they are healing is in part due to my own dogged insistence that I work to mend them, and in part because I am nourished by a community of family – by blood and marriage and choice – who love me into my bones. And my bowels, too, as it turns out.
Bowel cancer is rare in people under 60 but certainly not unknown. If you have persistent changes in your bowel habits, please see your GP. You may need to be firm about the need for diagnostic testing. Bowel cancer is highly treatable the earlier it is caught so it’s in your best interest to find out! And if you’re called for a colonoscopy, please don’t let the fear of the prep or the procedure itself put you off. It’s not nice but it was also much easier than I expected, possibly because I followed the dietary advice for several days in advance and then fasted from solids for 24 hours beforehand. Not fun. But worth it to protect my health. I hope you’ll think so too. For more info: https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/bowel-cancer/getting-diagnosed/seeing-your-gp