Judy Place ~ Beating Bowel Cancer

Judy Place ~ Beating Bowel Cancer

Originally published in September 2002 icon

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Judy Place


A Young Mother’s Inspiring Story


If you think colon cancer is a disease affecting older people who have eaten too much red meat and too few vegetables, think again.


Few women realise that they can be vulnerable during pregnancy.

Judy Place was 32 when her problems started. She has suffered terribly, but a combination of excellent surgical skills, a strong belief in God and a determined and positive attitude has brought her through.

Here’s Judy’s story in her own words...

My daughter. Hannah, will be three on New Year’s Day, but I privately celebrated something else a few months ago - feeling like a proper mum for the first time since she was born. I’m finally well and strong enough to look after her myself, rather than relying on a childminder, family or friends to help out. We’re doing so many things together as a family, and now I know how much fun having children can be.

Back in December 1999, I was nine months’ pregnant when I started to have bouts of diarrhoea. I thought it was due to changing hormones and went on to have my millennium baby. Hannah arrived by caesarean section, as I couldn’t deliver normally - but nobody could tell me why. My husband Simon and I thought it was a fantastic start to a new century, little did we know what would follow...

Open quotesI was examined internally, but the doctor missed the tumourClose quotes


At my six-week check, I had a constant pain on my left side just by my ribs. A year later, this pain would eventually give another doctor a clue to my real illness. At the time everyone assumed I had a womb infection and put my symptoms down to having had a baby.


When Hannah was ten weeks old we moved from Milton Keynes to Birmingham. Things were fine for a few months, but then I began to have diarrhoea again and bleeding, and I felt very tired and emotional. Over the next few months I lost two stone, got more and more tired and had to rush to the toilet nine or ten times a day. My doctor said I had irritable bowel syndrome, but when I kept going back saying the treatment wasn’t working I was just offered more tablets. I was examined internally, but the doctor missed the tumour.

By September I was so exhausted that insomnia set in. Trying to look after a nine-month-old baby all day and night with no sleep, and all my other problems, was taking its toll on me, my marriage and my care of Hannah. I was bloated, exhausted, angry, crying a lot and arguing with Simon. He didn’t have a chance. Simon was doing everything he could, but I was getting stressed with Hannah and was at the end of my tether.

A month later, a different doctor decided I had postnatal depression. In her defence, I did have all the symptoms and no one even thought about bowel cancer because I was only 32 (and I’d stopped mentioning the diarrhoea). I was put on anti-depressants and Simon started working from home to help me. I then began taking sleeping tablets, which helped immensely until Hannah’s teething pains started.

Open quotesI had CT scan and blood tests and then a major operation to remove a golf-ball-size tumourClose quotes


I saw my doctor regularly and in December, just as I was leaving the surgery, I happened to say to her that I was fed up with the diarrhoea and that I had lost two and a half stone. She called me straight back into her room. I thank God she felt things were not quite right and referred me by the "fast track" method to a bowel specialist. She didn’t examine me internally because my previous doctor had already done so. This was a terrible shame as the tumour would have been evident by this point but, in hindsight, it would have only saved me a few weeks.


A week later, I suddenly lost a lot of blood. I also felt a lump and was terrified so I rang the emergency doctor in tears. I told him all my symptoms and concerns, but he said I had infected piles and should go and buy some suppositories. I was convinced I had bowel cancer, but he gave his diagnosis over the phone, with no examination and no consideration for my concerns or my family history (my uncle had died of bowel cancer at the age of 41). This doctor could have cost me my life, but I knew I had my appointment with the specialist booked.

When I saw Professor Keighley on 19th December 2000 he told me immediately that I had rectal cancer. My response was, "Can you catch it in time or am I going to die?" He replied, "I know I can catch it, but we must act now." I was admitted to Birmingham’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital the next day, had a CT scan and blood tests and then a major operation on 22nd December to remove a golf-ball-size tumour. I was given a temporary ileostomy, as they had had to remove eight inches of my bowel and reconstruct it. The ileostomy aimed to give the site time to heal. I was going to have the worst Christmas of my life, but I knew I was going to live and that was all that mattered right then.

My mum and dad came to live with us for three weeks to help look after Hannah and support Simon. We had so much support; thousands of people praying for us, and enough flowers to fill a room. It was truly wonderful. I missed Hannah’s first Christmas, but I was determined to be out of hospital for her first birthday. It was just the incentive I needed and I came home on 29th December, just in time.

Judy and Simon

In January 2001 test results showed that five out of the 12 lymph nodes that had been removed were cancerous.

This meant I would need radiotherapy as well as chemotherapy. We were devastated all over again.

We had come through the trauma of the operation only to be told that if I chose to have radiotherapy I would be infertile for the rest of my life.

This is when I contacted Colon Cancer Concern, as I didn’t know which way to turn. They sought a second opinion to help us decide. Professor Keighley had gone on sabbatical and so I was to be advised by his junior, but I didn’t feel safe.

My local church set up a rota to help Simon look after Hannah, and keep the house going. I wasn’t allowed to lift Hannah for at least three months, because the operation had involved cutting through my stomach muscles. The rota provided two or three people a day from 8am in the morning, so that Simon could go to work. The women came and lifted Hannah in and out of her cot and highchair, played with her, cleaned the house and prepared a meal for the slow cooker. Some mums, who I had met in a breastfeeding group, had also become excellent friends and freely came and helped us. Everyone was fantastic and we couldn’t have survived without them.

In February we went on a family holiday for some winter sun, which did all of us the power of good and gave us some form of normality. It was hard getting used to an ileostomy, but I enjoyed swimming and gained more strength. I became more positive that we would get through it all. My Christian faith has been incredibly important to me. It hasn’t stopped me questioning why, but it has helped me knowing that God was with me and us as a family - even in the darkest moments.

Open quotes
I was told I had post-natal depression - it turned out to be bowel cancerClose quotes


I had found out that I was entitled to incapacity benefit, and this enabled us to send Hannah to a childminder for two days a week (Pat has been fantastic and given Hannah tremendous stability). We also employed a mother’s help, Zoe, for three days a week. She helped look after Hannah, the house and cooked us meals, so that I was able to rest more.


Professor Keighley returned from sabbatical and agreed with the second opinion we had received from Professor Heald from Basingstoke (via Carol at CCC), that I didn’t need radiotherapy. He decided to reverse my ileostomy the following week. It was a relief to know I would be losing the "bag", but the timing wasn’t great; it was my birthday!

In March I was referred to Professor Kerr, to look into what chemotherapy I should have. He decided that radiotherapy was by far the most effective method for my type of cancer, and the argument started all over again. I didn’t know who to listen to or trust, or how to decide what treatment to have. It was all incredibly stressful. We did a lot of questioning and praying and eventually decided to have radiotherapy, despite the consequences to my fertility, as I finally felt peaceful about it after much soul-searching.

There was no point having more children if I wasn’t going to live long enough to look after them. But I also felt sure that, despite the radiotherapy, I would miraculously have another child, though only time will tell.

I finally started my radiotherapy on 31st May 2001. It was by far the worst of all the treatments I have had. I had to go to the hospital daily, excluding weekends, for five weeks. That was tiring enough, never mind the radiotherapy which also ulcerated me, burnt my skin, gave me diarrhoea and, as we had feared, sent me spiralling into an early menopause.

Open quotesI was plunged into a world of hot flushes, terrible mood swings, thrush and erratic sleep patternsClose quotes


I was plunged into a world of hot flushes, terrible mood swings, thrush and erratic sleep patterns. It was a horrible time, but with the tremendous support we had from friends, family and our local church we made it through.


I went back to see Professor Kerr on the 9th of July to see when I would start chemotherapy, but was told much to my relief and amazement that I didn’t need any more treatment. I cried more that morning than throughout the whole saga, out of pure relief that finally the majority of my nightmare was over.

There were so many people to thank that we had a big party. We had a service of celebration on the 9th September, where we had Hannah dedicated to thank God for her, and to celebrate her life and the beginning of ours as a family again. Then we had a party. It was fantastic.

I went onto HRT and, after a few months, everything started to settle down. I could spend a lot more time with Hannah and things slowly began to get back to normal, even though we were decorating and Simon still had a doctorate to finish. Christmas 2001 was very different to the previous year and quite emotional at times. We spent it with my parents who have been amazing. They came to help each time I had an operation or was struggling.

It was a very special time just being together realising what could have been, and that now we were starting to come out the other side. Hannah’s second birthday was fantastic. I could get fully involved in the party with her little friends, rather than just lying on a couch unable to move.

Open quotesWe had only been married two years when this all began, but we are coming out the other side far stronger and closer than beforeClose quotes


I had another scan in January 2002 and was told that I was clear of cancer. The only drawback was that the radiotherapy had shrunk the area of bowel that had been reconstructed. This was causing me difficulties and I was relieved when Professor Keighley said he could do something about it. I had a further operation in April 2002 which helped enormously.


At the same time I had a colonoscopy. The results showed that I was still completely cancer free after 16 months, which was fantastic news. Professor Keighley said he didn’t need to see me for six months.

With the agreement of the menopause clinic I have come off HRT and am praying for my ovaries to start working again! Watch this space; only time will tell. I believe in miracles, but if it doesn’t happen I still have the most gorgeous little girl in the world; although I may be a little biased! This whole experience has greatly impacted on my life and our family. Simon and I have been for counselling, partly to help talk about the pain it has all caused, but also to talk about the incredible pressure it put on our marriage. We had only been married two years when this all began, but we are coming out the other side far stronger and closer than before. We have probably taken a far closer look at our marriage than most people do in a lifetime, and will benefit greatly in the long run.

I would advise anyone with any kind of medical problem to trust their own body and instincts. If you think there is something wrong, persist in seeking medical help. Doctors aren’t infallible.

I have questioned God as to why he allowed this to happen to me, but have found the whole experience has proved the reality of his love. It has been his strength and peace, surpassing anything else I know, that has given all my family hope for a bright future.

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