A mother-of-two suffered from a rare tropical disease, caught from eating unwashed fruit, which masked her bowel cancer symptoms for more than two years.
Anna Gilmour, 39, from Esher, Surrey, started losing weight and suffering from diarrhoea in 2015, prompting her to be diagnosed with giardiasis.
After years of bloating and abdominal pain, Ms Gilmour, a Waitrose insight manager, was relieved when they finally eased, only for her discomfort to return around 12 months later.
Ms Gilmour received the ‘devastating’ news she had a tumour, which her family dubbed ‘Sid the sod’, after her nurse sister encouraged her to visit a doctor.
She said: ‘Cancer has the same symptoms of giardiasis and IBS, so I always thought it was just that.’
After enduring eight weeks of grueling chemotherapy and surgery to remove the tumour, Ms Gilmour is now cancer free and is speaking out to raise awareness of the condition in young people.
Around 41,200 people get diagnosed with bowel cancer every year in the UK.
Anna Gilmour suffered from a rare tropical disease, caught from eating unwashed fruit, which masked her bowel cancer for more than two years (pictured with her husband Damien, 40)
Ms Gilmour started losing weight and suffering from diarrhoea in 2015, prompting her to be diagnosed with giardiasis and later cancer (pictured with her seven-year-old son Sam)
After weeks of chemotherapy and surgery to remove the tumour, she is now cancer free
WHAT IS BOWEL CANCER?
Bowel, or colorectal, cancer affects the large bowel, which is made up of the colon and rectum.
Such tumours usually develop from pre-cancerous growths, called polyps.
- Bleeding from the bottom
- Blood in stools
- A change in bowel habits lasting at least three weeks
- Unexplained weight loss
- Extreme, unexplained tiredness
- Abdominal pain
Most cases have no clear cause, however, people are more at risk if they:
- Are over 50
- Have a family history of the condition
- Have a personal history of polyps in their bowel
- Suffer from inflammatory bowel disease, such as Crohn’s disease
- Lead an unhealthy lifestyle
Treatment usually involves surgery, and chemo- and radiotherapy.
More than nine out of 10 people with stage one bowel cancer survive five years or more after their diagnosis.
This drops significantly if it is diagnosed in later stages.
According to Bowel Cancer UK figures, more than 41,200 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer every year in the UK.
It affects around 40 per 100,000 adults per year in the US, according to the National Cancer Institute.
‘Younger people are being diagnosed so late’
Ms Gilmour said: ‘My diagnosis sent us all in the wrong direction.
‘When we did look at alternatives, after over a year, we all went down the inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) route, as that is in my family.
‘It was just unlucky that I got both giardiasis and cancer. What are the odds of that happening?’
After Ms Gilmour was told she would need surgery to remove the tumour and chemotherapy to kill any remaining cancer cells, she headed home to break the news to her sons.
She said: ‘Telling them wasn’t easy, but for me, it was about being really honest with them, but saying it in a way they understood.
‘We called the tumour “Sid the sod”, plucked out of thin air, and explained that mummy had a lump in her tummy, meaning she’d have to go into hospital. They were excited because it meant grandma would come for a sleepover.
‘When I had chemotherapy, Sam [her seven-year-old son] used Star Wars to help him understand. He said it was like they had removed the death star but there were still drones hanging on.’
Now in remission, Ms Gilmour has recently returned to work and wants to help others understand the symptoms of bowel cancer.
She said: ‘I didn’t think about bowel cancer, but this shows that it can happen to anyone. I look at the statistics and I know younger people are being diagnosed so late.
‘I was lucky and, hopefully, I will continue to build up my strength and get back to normal in 2018, but people need to be aware of the symptoms and doctors need to know that it can happen in younger people.’
Ms Gilmour suffered years of abdominal pain, bloating and diarrhoea due to her giardiasis (pictured with her mother just before her cancer diagnosis)
When her symptoms finally started to ease, she was shocked when they returned and dismissed them as IBS as a result of giardiasis (pictured with her four-year-old son Oliver)
After visiting a doctor, Ms Gilmour discovered cancer was causing the same symptoms
WHAT IS GIARDIASIS?
Giardiasis is a stomach bug that is commonly spread by drinking untreated water abroad or eating food handled by an infected person.
- Smelly diarrhoea
- Abdominal pain
- Smelly burps, like eggs
- Weight loss
Diagnosis may require sending off a stool sample.
Treatment is antibiotics for several days, which should cause symptoms to stop in around a week.
People are most infectious from the start of their symptoms to two days after they pass.
While recovering, drink lots of fluids, wash hands thoroughly, frequently disinfect surfaces, and wash bedding and clothing separately on a hot temperature.
Giardiasis is thought to affect around 3,500 people each year in the UK.
Approximately 15,000 suffer annually in the US, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
‘I thought it was just IBS’
Ms Gilmour was out with her sister Vicky, 41, who works at London’s St Mark’s Hospital, when she had to rush to use the toilet.
She said: ‘Vicky manages the hospital’s Polyposis Registry, which supports families with a history of bowel cancer, who have polyps.
‘When someone with that kind of knowledge about bowel disorders tells you, “That poo isn’t normal”, you tend to do as you’re told.’
After giving a stool sample to her doctor, tests revealed Ms Gilmour had giardiasis.
After Ms Gilmour told the doctor her only trip overseas in the past year had been to Majorca with her family, he suggested she had contracted it from unwashed fruit, bought in the UK.
Ms Gilmour said: ‘The doctor told me it can take up to four years to fully recover.’
After several years of experiencing uncomfortable symptoms, they finally subsided, only to return.
Ms Gilmour said: ‘I was worried I had IBD. My brother, David, has Crohn’s and I had all the same symptoms.
‘I felt unwell, but not as bad as when I had giardiasis, so I thought it was just post-infectious IBS.’
She explained the cancer to her children in a way they could understand, calling it ‘Sid the sod’
Sam likened her surgery to removing the death star but with drones hanging on
‘I was only 38. It seemed so young’
When her blood tests for IBD came back clear, Ms Gilmour tried to put it to the back of her mind and headed off to Australia for a dream holiday in December 2016.
Yet, during the trip, her health deteriorated. She said: ‘I could barely eat anything. I was bloating like I was six months pregnant.
‘My stomach was huge. I called it my “beige buffet” because it was so sensitive, I could only eat plain, beige food. Anything else would cause really bad pain and diarrhoea.
‘When I got home, I caught up with my sister, who was worried about me and wanted me to see a private specialist. She thought maybe the giardiasis had done some permanent damage.’
During an appointment with a doctor on Harley Street in March 2017, further blood tests showed her vitamin and iron levels were very low.
Ms Gilmour said: ‘I was referred for an urgent colonoscopy, which happened five days later on March 27.
‘I was sedated, but awake enough to see what was happening on the screen. I saw an obstruction and asked what it was, only to be told, “That’s what is causing your problems”.
‘I don’t think I even thought about cancer. It was only in the waiting room, afterwards, when they brought my sister and my husband in, that I realised I had bowel cancer.
‘Cancer has the same symptoms of giardiasis and IBS, so I always thought it was just that. I was devastated. I was only 38. It seemed so young.’
Find more information here.
Ms Gilmour endured eight weeks of chemotherapy, as well as surgery to remove the tumour
Now cancer free, Ms Gilmour has recently returned to work as a Waitrose insight manager
She is now speaking out to raise awareness of the condition in young people