Despite doctors' claims that she was too young for bowel cancer, Jessica Dasler knew something was wrong. A stage 4 diagnosis years later proved her right – but the next challenge was getting doctors to give her the right treatment rather than write her off.
With red-flag symptoms, you’d think Canadian mum Jessica would be a shoo in for a colonoscopy. But, unfortunately, doctors honed in on a litany of other potential causes.
“I experienced several symptoms and asked many doctors to help figure it out but I was neglected. The most concerning was severe lower back pain, initially diagnosed as sciatica,” she says. “Digestive changes were another noticeable sign, but they were dismissed and attributed to other factors. I had a large ovarian cyst, which I believed was responsible for my symptoms, but when I asked about the possibility of cancer, doctors said I was too young.”
But bowel cancer in young people is on the rise – with around 15, 500 Australians diagnosed each year, bowel cancer is the third most common form of cancer in the country, but around 1 in 10 of those diagnosed are under 50, with 1600 young Aussies developing the disease each year. But, what many of these young people are finding is just how difficult getting that diagnosis can be. In Jessica’s case, as many women can relate to, doctors blamed her symptoms on her pregnancy, brushing off her concerns around their severity and unusual nature.
“Fatigue and persistent aches intensified during my 2nd pregnancy but was told everything was from my pregnancy. After my miscarriage I had surgeries to investigate but only removed scar tissue and fluid-filled fallopian tubes not an ovarian cyst like the doctors diagnosed me with.”
Jessica was left to advocate for herself as she sought out vital tests – often meeting copious pushback from doctors and specialists. And she’s not alone.
“It took months to get a referral to the GI clinic and I had to ask for this. The GI specialist almost talked me out of a colonoscopy but I knew I had to do it,” she says. “He was shocked when he found two tumours, with another on the way, and numerous polyps.
“After that I had many scans which felt like my life was over.”
Jessica says to watch out for “digestive changes, blood in stool, anaemia, thin stools, diarrhoea/constipation, fatigue, lower back/tailbone pain, pelvic pain, feeling unwell,” while also noting that regular check-ups are important as some people won’t have symptoms.
“I do know people that had no symptoms until they developed a bowel blockage and needed hospital care," she says.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the major signs:
- Changes in bowel habits: Diarrhoea, constipation, or a change in the consistency of stool that lasts for several weeks without an obvious cause.
- Blood in stool: This indicates internal bleeding, specifically in the lower digestive tract. The blood may be bright red or even dark and tarry.
- Abdominal pain: Unexplained abdominal pain or discomfort, including cramps, bloating, or persistent discomfort that does not go away with usual remedies.
- Unexplained weight loss: Significant and unexplained weight loss without an apparent cause is another common symptom of the disease. It may be accompanied by loss of appetite and fatigue.
- Anaemia: Iron-deficiency anaemia that may result in weakness, fatigue, and pale skin often occurs with the condition due to persistent bleeding from the bowel, leading to blood and iron loss.
- A feeling of incomplete bowel movements: A feeling of incomplete emptying after bowel movements or a persistent urge to have a bowel movement, even after having one.
- Bowel obstruction: In some cases, bowel cancer may cause a partial or complete blockage in the bowel, leading to symptoms such as severe abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and inability to pass gas or have a bowel movement.
After receiving her shocking diagnosis and struggling through long appointment wait-times – prolonged further by the COVID-19 pandemic – Jessica started to regain hope and motivation.
“I reached out to people and found support which changed my perspective and put me in control of the situation while waiting for my oncologist appointment that took way too long,” she says.
The Canadian mum then found herself fighting to get better treatment options rather than the dire prognosis she was given.
“The BC medical is restrictive so I was told chemo for life which is around 3 years to live like all the others I know with stage 4 here,” Jessica says of the British Columbia medical system. “I’m 2.5 years in with very little or no cancer left in my body from the treatments I’ve had that I had to advocate for. I found an advocacy group that connected me to surgeons/doctors and others going through this. This not-for-profit organisation educated me on what treatments are out there for my mutations, helped me access these treatments and much more.
“Our system will not tell you everything as it’s too costly for our “free” healthcare to give everyone these surgeries. I had to fly to Toronto from Vancouver to have my latest lung surgeries as Vancouver system wouldn’t offer it.”
While Jessica has a family history of the disease – with her grandmother passing at 64 and her sister diagnosed with Serrated Polyposis Syndrome, meaning she has to go in for colonoscopies and regularly have polyps removed – she also emphasises the importance of keeping a watch on your health, regardless of genetics.
“Bowel/colorectal cancer is on the rise in younger healthy individuals, even if you do not have a family history,” she says. “If your health feels off go to your doctor and ask for tests.
“Do not let them brush you off like they did to me and many others. The cancer in the young people seem to be different than the traditional older unhealthy population which means it’s spreading further.”
To learn more about Jessica’s story, head on over to her Instagram: @jessfightscancer
For more information on bowel cancer, head on over to Bowel Cancer Australia.