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I was diagnosed with ‘inoperable’ bowel cancer at 25

I was diagnosed with ‘inoperable’ bowel cancer at 25

I thought my stomach pain was just a UTI, but it was stage 4 bowel cancer.

It was Christmas 2021 when Ellie Wilcock started to experience an aching sensation on one side of her stomach. What she thought was a harmless UTI turned out to be an aggressive and advanced form of bowel cancer that at its worst covered 22cm by 22cm. The doctors thought it was inoperable, but through a potent mix of luck and willpower, Ellie defied the odds. Two years later, she is completely free of the disease. Here, she shares her inspiring story with GLAMOUR in the hope of helping others to spot potential symptoms sooner.

The first thing you need to know about cancer is that it’s nothing like what you see in the films. I used to think of cancer in the way it’s shown in My Sister’s Keeper; the character Kate, who has leukaemia, walks around white as a sheet, and always has her head in a bowl. The reality is very different. My oncologist told me that’s what cancer looked like in the 80s, but we’ve come a long way since then. You might feel sick and need to rest, but you will still feel like you. You’re still you. Everyday is a new day and the next one could be better. For me, if I could do a food shop with my mum, that was a good day. And eventually the good days grew and grew until the bad days faded away.

I was 25 when I was diagnosed with bowel cancer. I had recently moved in with my partner Rory, and we had just got a dog. I had a job I loved in marketing, focused on home and interiors. Life was normal. Cancer plunged me into a whole new universe. The news had followed two months of trips to A&E, and a pain that started as uncomfortable and intensified until it was agony. In Christmas 2021, I began experiencing tummy and pelvic pain, which I dismissed as a UTI. Eventually, it passed but only to return with greater force. At the end of January 2022, I visited my GP for advice. Urine test results came back blank. A week later when the pain hadn’t subsided, I returned to see my doctor. A nurse practitioner examined me but found nothing wrong, so I completed a blood test. The results revealed that my C-Reaction Protein (CRP) levels were high, indicating that something inside me was inflamed. The doctor booked me in for ultrasound to better understand what was going on, but no one had any idea about how long I’d have to wait. I had a feeling that something really wasn’t right and the pain was getting worse, so I called a doctor friend. She asked if the pain was bad enough to stop me sleeping, which it was. Every time I rolled over it hurt. The day after, I went to my nearest hospital in Peterborough with my dad.

An initial surgical assessment revealed that my CRP levels, which were initially reading 65, had risen to 110, so whatever it was was getting worse. The consultant who assessed me wanted to send me home where I would wait for my ultrasound. At that point, I said no; something inside me knew I should stay at the hospital. Eventually, I was given a bed on a surgical ward and within 48 hours, I had an ultrasound where a 15-centimetre mass was found growing in my ovary. Because of the location of this mass, I was transferred to a women’s health ward where I was taken into theatre. Initially, the medics thought it was a large ovarian cyst that could be removed easily. But I woke up from surgery to find out that nothing had been removed – instead they’d taken a biopsy. I had no idea at that point that the word ‘biopsy’ was a big red flag. It turned out that whatever was causing me so much pain wasn’t a cyst, and was now thought to be pelvic inflammatory disease, which is a little like endometriosis. I was sent home and told to wait for the results.

I did go home, but before long the pain had become so intense I was rushed to A&E again. The pain would come in waves almost like contractions. On a scale of one to 10, it was a hard nine. Searing, teeth-clenching agony. Back in hospital, the red flags appeared in earnest. A doctor took my mum and I into a private room and asked what I’d like to be called. My full name is Eleanor, so I told the doctor that Ellie was fine. He said, “Ellie, it’s not good news. Your biopsy results are back and you have cancer.” It hit me sideways. I was so sure it would be benign.

The growth couldn’t be removed, because it had spread from my bowel to my ovaries to my liver. I had stage four cancer, among the most advanced forms of the disease. I asked him if I was going to die. He said, “I don’t know.” My mum and I let it all out in that room. I was so scared about dying. I screamed and cried; it was terrible. At around 2am on the morning of Valentine’s Day, I was given a hospital bed and my mum slept next to me. When the sun came up that day, I decided – no more negative. No more is-this-going-to-work? No more will-this-be-ok? I just had to crack on with the treatment and get better. I wouldn’t even entertain the idea that I could die. I wouldn’t discuss any other ending, and I never did. For me, my battle was about not leaving my family or my partner behind. My brother and sister would have lost their mum and dad because they would never have been the same again if I wasn’t there. I knew I needed to still be here so we could maintain my beautiful family. I couldn’t ruin that by not making it.

I was diagnosed with ‘inoperable’ bowel cancer at 25

Ellie was diagnosed with stage 4 bowel cancer at the age of 25

The next step was stoma surgery, because the tumour was obstructing my large bowel. Thankfully, it went well – and after two weeks, I went home, or at least to my parents’ home, where I lived for six months for the most intense part of my treatment. My mum became my brilliant carer.

Much to my surprise, arriving home was hard. My family had blown up balloons and gave me this amazing welcome, but I just wanted to get back in the car and return to hospital. I was so well looked after there that I didn’t have to worry about anything – it was someone else’s job to worry about my health. Suddenly, I wasn’t distracted by beeping, doctors and nurses, I was just at home with my thoughts. I had brought the cancer home for the first time. The house didn’t feel the same anymore. Adjusting to this new way of life was hard. Overnight, my family and I were plunged into a world of cancer. Terminology is different. Your brain feels different. People are different around you. Your body feels different. Either you can fight it, or you can accept that this is the new universe you’re in and to move through it – and that’s the route we chose.

Unfortunately, there was an added complication: the cancer was growing faster than anyone realised. It had been poked and prodded by the biopsy, which prompted it to expand quicker. It increased from 15cm to 22cm, stretching from my bikini line up to my ribs. My belly was so full of cancer, it looked as if I was nine months pregnant. People asked me, “when are you due?” and I’d have to tell them, “no, it’s a tumour.”

I was diagnosed with ‘inoperable’ bowel cancer at 25

Ellie at the beginning of her chemotherapy journey in 2022

I started chemo as an in-patient. My oncologist was amazing. Despite my dim chances, he didn’t want to rule out being free of cancer and did everything possible to help me get rid of it. He wanted to blast me with treatment, and as soon as I had chemo, I started feeling better. It gave my body a chance to fight the cancer. In the end, I did 14 rounds of it. Each infusion took 10 hours. It was hardcore, but I refused to be defined by my cancer. I lost 80% of my hair, so my parents bought me a wig which I loved. I worked part-time during my treatment, as it was a good distraction. Everything was great, then it was terrible, then we reached a medium where we found our lives again. We went away for a weekend as a family, we went to London, we went to the theatre. We did the good stuff when I was able to because I simply couldn’t let it rule my life. I just needed to fit in my treatment every couple of days every few weeks. That’s all the time that cancer was allowed.

Eventually, I was sent to Charing Cross Hospital in London and on 13th December 2022 – eleven months after my diagnosis – where all cancer was removed from my pelvis. The 10-hour surgery involved the removal of my primary tumour, ovaries, fallopian tubes, uterus, cervix and parts of my large bowel, omentum, and peritoneum, and the reversal of my stoma. It felt as if a miracle had been performed. I went in again on 3rd January 2023 for a treatment called microwave liver ablation, which destroyed the final cancerous cells. Afterwards, I did six months of chemo in tablet form, which I finished last summer – and I’ve been clear ever since.

I was diagnosed with ‘inoperable’ bowel cancer at 25

Ellie following her life-saving surgery in December 2022

Life in remission has its challenges. Since my ovaries were removed, I am left infertile. Now aged 27, I’m aware that soon my friends might start having kids and I know that will be hard – but I’m making my peace with it. The fatigue stays with you, too. Sometimes my brain feels foggy, and there are times that I don’t feel as compassionate as perhaps I should when someone says they have a cold. Therapy and the amazing people at Macmillan are helping me through it. Although these challenges are hard, I still feel lucky to be able to face them.

I was diagnosed with ‘inoperable’ bowel cancer at 25

Celebrating finishing chemo in August 2023

Living through cancer has changed my perspective hugely. I don’t sweat the small stuff half as much. When you’ve been close to the end of the world for you, nothing after it is really the end of the world. My experience also made me come across ‘Bowel Babe’ Deborah James and her ‘rebellious hope’ mantra – an ethos I’ve adopted. Although her bowel cancer didn’t have a positive outcome, she never lost her joy at being alive or her faith in the world. She once said: “I fly on the wings of science.” Even if you have so much against you, remember that new cancer treatments are introduced every year. If you compare 12 months ago to now, scientists and medics will have found new developments. Deborah James talked about the power of having hope when it seems there isn’t anything to be hopeful for. When I was diagnosed and told that the cancer was so widespread that there wasn’t much they could do – when on paper it seemed nothing but bleak – that’s exactly when you need to apply rebellious hope.

I was diagnosed with ‘inoperable’ bowel cancer at 25

Running a half marathon post-chemo, in October 2023

I was diagnosed with ‘inoperable’ bowel cancer at 25

Ellie is now cancer-free

My hope now is that by sharing my story I can help others. If you are reading this and currently dealing with cancer, this is my advice: never Google your cancer. Never read the bad stories – only read the good. You need positive case studies to spur you on. Advocate for yourself in hospital and trust your instincts. And remember, there is always, always hope.

The symptoms of bowel cancer may include:

  • blood in or on your poo (stools), or bleeding from the back passage (rectum) – the blood may be bright red or dark
  • a change in your normal bowel habit that happens for no obvious reason and lasts longer than three weeks – for example, diarrhoea or constipation
  • unexplained weight loss
  • pain in your tummy (abdomen) or back passage
  • feeling that you have not emptied your bowel properly after you poo
  • unexplained tiredness, dizziness or breathlessness
  • a lower than normal level of red blood cells (anaemia).

Sometimes the cancer can cause a blockage (obstruction) in the bowel. You may:

  • feel constipated and bloated
  • have tummy pain
  • be sick (vomit).

If you're affected by this article, Macmillan Cancer Support is available at https://www.macmillan.org.uk/ and on helpline: 0808 808 0000.