As the sad news has been announced of actress Lynda Bellingham’s death from advanced bowel cancer, Aasma Day talks to a Preston grandmother who knows how lucky she is after being treated for the disease four times.
She talks about why she wants people not to be too embarrassed to seek medical advice about bowel problems.
Women often get accused of having too many handbags and grandmother Dawn Jones admits with a rueful laugh that she never goes anywhere without TWO bags – her colostomy bag and her “wee bag”.
Although Dawn, 47, of Bamber Bridge, near Preston, is frank and open about her battle with bowel cancer which has struck her FOUR times over the last decade, she admits she was “absolutely devastated” when she was first diagnosed with bowel cancer at the age of just 32.
After hearing of actress Lynda Bellingham’s tragic situation as her terminal bowel cancer means she now only has weeks to live, Dawn is urging people to get themselves checked out immediately if they have bowel related symptoms and says they should not allow doctors to dismiss the condition simply because they feel they are “too young” to have the condition.
Dawn, who is married to Stephen, a builder and has three children and five grandchildren, was working as a senior care assistant when she first started experiencing problems.
Dawn recalls: “I was losing blood when I went to the toilet so I went to see my GP who told me I was too young to have bowel cancer and that it must be Crohn’s Disease, which is a form of Inflammatory Bowel Disease.
“I was given painkillers to treat it and I just went with what the doctor said.
“After that, I carried on as normal and didn’t give it another thought and just carried with every day life.
“With working full-time and having the children, I didn’t really dwell on it even though I continued suffering blood loss when I went to the toilet. I carried on like this for another nine months.”
Dawn and Stephen, who had been together 13 years at the time, got married in September 2001.
However, just a few months later, Dawn received a huge bombshell after going back to the doctor when her symptoms worsened.
Dawn explains: “I knew for a while that something was wrong as I just did not feel right.
“I lost blood when I went to the toilet and also had a change in my bowel movements.
“Then I experienced dramatic weight loss a few weeks after our wedding and lost six stones in as many weeks.
“Then I read a magazine which listed the symptoms of bowel cancer and I knew deep down that I had it and went back to the doctor.
“She examined me and I could tell by her face that she had found a tumour. She sent me straight to the hospital.”
Dawn underwent investigations including having a camera put inside her. She also had a CT scan and an MRI scan.
When she went to see her consultant, he confirmed that she had cancer, which was rife in her bowel, and that if they did not operate straight away, she would only have had six weeks left to live.
Dawn remembers: “Even though I had felt deep down that it was bowel cancer, it was still a shock to hear I had it at my age and I could not believe it when he told me that I would only have had weeks left to live if I hadn’t gone back to the doctor when I did.”
Dawn underwent her first major operation in February 2002. The surgery took eight hours and part of her bowel was taken away and she was fitted with a colostomy bag. However, the plan was to allow her bowel to rest and then reverse the procedure at a later date.
After two-and-a-half weeks in hospital, Dawn began chemotherapy treatment which was supposed to be carried on for nine months.
However, six months into the treatment, she had another scan which revealed another tumour had appeared in the rest of her bowel and in her vaginal wall.
Dawn says: “I had to have another major operation and they had to make the colostomy permanent.
“They took away the remainder of my bowel and part of my vaginal wall.
“When I had rested after that surgery, they started me on another lot of chemotherapy and I then had radiotherapy every day for six weeks.”
Doctors discovered a third tumour but they managed to treat this with chemotherapy.
Dawn says that adjusting to life with a permanent colostomy was one of the most difficult things she has ever had to do.
“I was utterly devastated” she admits. Even though me and Stephen had been together for a long time, with only just having got married, it was really hard for me to come to terms with having a colostomy bag at my age.
“It was embarrassing to be honest. Even though I was only 32, I felt like an older person and after the surgery, I could not do the things that I did before.
“I couldn’t walk very far and this was really difficult when I had always been so mobile before and used to doing everything for myself.
“It just changed my life completely.”
Dawn confesses that she found it hard to come to terms with having a colostomy bag and was very depressed for the first couple of years.
She explains: “I stopped going out at night and I did not go out during the day either unless I really had to.
“I did not like to leave home because I did not like changing my bag anywhere because there are no facilities for things like that.
“But I just had to get on with it because I could not have it reversed and this was my life now.”
Dawn admits that the birth of her first grandchild Madison, who is now eight, gave her the push she needed to snap out of her depression and reluctance to leave the house.
She recalls: “When Madison arrived, I just seemed to snap out of it.
“I told myself: ‘You have a grandchild now, you’re going to have to buck up your ideas.’
“I started going out more during the day with her and taking her places. Once I got myself out and about, it did not seem so bad.
“Then the other grandchildren came along and I suddenly found I was fine.”
Dawn was fine for the next 10 years. She had been given the all clear from cancer and felt her ordeal was behind her.
Last year, however, Dawn began suffering from back ache and when she mentioned it during a routine appointment with her GP, she was sent for a scan.
Dawn says: “This time, I had no idea the cancer was back as I had been getting on with my life and really thought I had beaten it.
“When the consultant told me the cancer was back, I was heartbroken and devastated.
“I thought I was over the worst, but I didn’t realise the worst was yet to come.”
Dawn was told the cancer had returned around her vaginal area and was in an unusual and difficult to reach area and that the consultant had never carried out such an operation before.
Dawn says: “My consultant told me I was an ‘unusual case’ and that I would need a very big operation.
“The surgery took 15 hours and they had to cut me from my breast bone to my belly button and then from my belly around to my back and then they sewed me all the way round when they finished.
“Because I am sewn up all the way round, they gave me a wee bag so now I have two bags. This was horrendous to come to terms with.
“It was devastating news. I had not been able to go to the toilet to open my bowels for years and now I could not even go for a week and was totally reliant on two bags.”
After the major operation, Dawn was in intensive care for two days and went home after another 10 days.
However, a few days later, Dawn was lying in bed when an abscess in her stomach suddenly burst.
Dawn says: “Luckily, I still had all these holes in me where the drains had been otherwise the abscess would have gone into my blood and killed me.
“I was then re-admitted back to hospital and they gave me IV antibiotics and then I had to go to hospital daily for IV antibiotics every day for three months.
“I also had a strong dose of tablet antibiotics too.”
Dawn was bedridden for six months and could not do anything.
She was also in a lot of pain down her right hand side as a result of losing her nerve endings.
However, her grand-daughters Madison, eight and Poppy, five, gave up their free time during their summer holidays to brighten up their grandmother’s days and help her out.
Dawn says: “The girls were wonderful. Instead of playing out with their friends, they came to see me twice a day when I was in hospital and then when I came home, they came to spend time with me.
“They would fetch my bags for me, get me drinks and sit and chat to me and lie and watch TV with me.
“They were so funny and lovely and they really got me through it . If it wasn’t for them, I would have felt so low and depressed.
“I make jokes about my bags with the grandkids and say things like: ‘Go and get my nappy’. It helps me and helps them deal with it.”
Dawn was in a lot of pain and was in a wheelchair for a while whenever she went out, but hated it and was desperate to get back on her feet.
She is now able to walk, although can not manage long distances and is on a lot of daily medication.
She says: “I have to take 16 tablets at night and around eight during the day.
“It was difficult to get used to having two bags at first, especially the wee bag as it kept leaking.
“I remember going to a wedding and having to come home because one of my bags burst.
“However, I am now just taking each day at a time and am just grateful I am here to enjoy time with my family.”