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Young mum with deadly bowel cancer shares horror symptoms to raise awareness

Mum-of-two Gemma Farquhar (pictured)

A young mother-of-two fighting stage four bowel cancer has begged Australians to get regular check ups and take notice of irregular bowel habits, with the disease now the number one killer of adults between the ages of 25 and 44. 

Gemma Farquhar, who lives in Sydney with her family, was just 35 when she was diagnosed with the terminal illness in April 2020.

It had followed months of unexplained bowel movements and vomiting and a collection of doctors’ visits, with prognoses including a tummy bug and a parasite, which spurred Gemma’s push for the truth.

After ‘the mother of all surgeries’ and chemotherapy to kill the cancer it has now spread to her lungs, leaving the young mum with a 14 per cent chance of survival come the five year mark. It has already been two. 

Forty Australians are diagnosed every day with the disease and 101 will die every week – with younger victims on the rise. 

Overall bowel cancer is Australia’s second deadliest cancer.

Director of Bowel Cancer Australia Associate Professor Graham Newstead spoke on The Morning Show on Wednesday about watching for blood in your stool, sudden weight loss and a change in bowel habits.

‘Our bowel motion consists of bacteria and waste products and dead cells. Every cell in the bowel lining is removed as waste and a new one takes its place. If this doesn’t happen, that cell divides, then that cell divides and so on, forming a little mushroom, or polyp,’ he explained.

Gemma Farquhar, who lives in Sydney with her family, was just 35 when she was diagnosed with the terminal illness in April 2020

Gemma Farquhar, who lives in Sydney with her family, was just 35 when she was diagnosed with the terminal illness in April 2020

After 'the mother of all surgeries' and chemotherapy to kill the cancer it has now spread to her lungs, leaving the young mum with a 14 per cent chance of survival come the five year mark. It has already been two

 After ‘the mother of all surgeries’ and chemotherapy to kill the cancer it has now spread to her lungs, leaving the young mum with a 14 per cent chance of survival come the five year mark. It has already been two

‘They’re very common and most don’t turn to cancer but virtually all bowel cancers come from these polyps. So if we can find them and remove them, we’ll prevent that person from getting that cancer.

‘When I was a medical student we didn’t see it in young people, they were all 60 and 70 but now 1 in 10 bowel cancers are occurring in people under the age of 50.’

Gemma was enjoying a pizza on a Friday night in January 2020 when she started to notice something was wrong. 

‘A few hours after eating it, my tummy was rumbling out of control. At 2am in the morning I needed to empty my bowel and at the same time violently started vomiting – I vomited until every bit of pizza was out of my body,’ she told FEMAIL.

In March after one particular dinner the same thing happened again, with Gemma admitting to feeling ‘perfectly normal’ after the ordeal, but she knew something was amiss. 

‘I contacted the local doctor and had an appointment. I advised him of my symptoms and he simply said it’s nothing to worry about it’s just a tummy bug,’ she explained.

In March after one particular dinner the same thing happened again, with Gemma admitting to feeling 'perfectly normal' after the ordeal - but she knew it wasn't normal

In March after one particular dinner the same thing happened again, with Gemma admitting to feeling ‘perfectly normal’ after the ordeal – but she knew it wasn’t normal

Symptoms of bowel cancer 

– Change in bowel habits with diarrhoea, constipation or the feeling of incomplete emptying

– Thin or loose bowel movements

– Blood or mucous in stools

– Abdominal pain, bloating and cramping

– Anal or rectal pain

– Lump in the anus or rectum

– Unexplained weight loss

– Fatigue

– Unexplained anaemia

Source: Cancer Council Australia

‘I wasn’t satisfied and asked for a full blood test and some referrals. By this point it had been a couple of months between each episode. I asked for a referral for a gastroenterologist and an allergy specialist. 

‘As soon as I had the referral, I made an appointment. The allergy specialist indicated I didn’t have an allergy and the gastroenterologist indicated I most likely had some digestion issues so put me on some herbal medication for this. 

The specialist also sent Gemma for more blood tests and requested a stool sample. 

‘The sample came back with no additional information. A few weeks after I did the tests, my tummy was making very loud gurgling sounds and felt a bit crampy at times, I also felt quite bloated. This went on for about two weeks. 

‘At this point I called the local GP and asked if my results had come back. He simply said yes, they all look fine, a couple of things are elevated but just speak to the gastroenterologist. I then phoned her and advised her of my newer symptoms – she indicated it could be constipation so put me on some medication for that.’

On April 23 Gemma went for a walk with a friend when her stomach began cramping again, by nightfall the cramps were more intense, her appetite was gone and she began to violently throw up. 

'In the next hour the doctor phoned advising we need to immediately go into the hospital due to bowel cancer and an obstruction of the bowel', Gemma explained of the moment doctors finally realised something was seriously wrong

‘In the next hour the doctor phoned advising we need to immediately go into the hospital due to bowel cancer and an obstruction of the bowel’, Gemma explained of the moment doctors finally realised something was seriously wrong

A peritonectomy is sometimes referred to as 'the mother of all surgeries' because doctors cut a patient down the middle, take out certain cancer-riddled organs and pour 'hot chemotherapy' over your abdomen

A peritonectomy is sometimes referred to as ‘the mother of all surgeries’ because doctors cut a patient down the middle, take out certain cancer-riddled organs and pour ‘hot chemotherapy’ over your abdomen

‘First thing the following morning I called my gastroenterologist,’ she said.

‘After speaking to her she immediately asked me to go for more bloods, have a CT scan and perhaps take some antibiotics if I had some sort of parasite. I immediately booked in for a CT scan and did the bloods within the following hour.’

Within an hour, a doctor called Gemma explaining she needed to go to hospital immediately, as they had detected bowel cancer and an obstruction in her bowel. 

‘I went into shock and disbelief. After a restless evening and the inability to eat or drink anything due to the pending surgery, I woke on April 25 where I got wheeled away to the operating theatre. I was in tears and extremely fearful of the unknown.’

After emergency surgery Gemma was diagnosed with stage three bowel cancer, but as soon as she started chemotherapy doctors noticed the cancer had spread to her ovaries, immediately moving her to a stage four.  

After emergency surgery Gemma was diagnosed with stage three bowel cancer, but as soon as she started chemotherapy doctors noticed the cancer had spread to her ovaries, immediately moving her to a stage four

After emergency surgery Gemma was diagnosed with stage three bowel cancer, but as soon as she started chemotherapy doctors noticed the cancer had spread to her ovaries, immediately moving her to a stage four

‘We then changed our treatment plan to be more aggressive and I had intensive chemotherapy and was scheduled to have a peritonectomy plus HIPEC which removed many things in September,’ she said.

A peritonectomy is sometimes referred to as ‘the mother of all surgeries’ because doctors cut a patient down the middle, take out certain cancer-riddled organs and pour ‘hot chemotherapy’ over your abdomen.  

‘The surgery I had removed my peritoneum, omentum, appendix, 20cm of my bowel and I had a full radical hysterectomy so my uterus, tubes, cervices plus both my ovaries were also removed then of course, the hot chemotherapy. 

‘Did I mention… I also have no belly button?’

Gemma woke up nine hours after surgery in the ICU with four drains coming out of her stomach and epidural that helped her tolerate the pain for four days. 

She was unable to walk until day three when she took ‘just one step’ and was unable to eat or drink on her own.  

Gemma woke up nine hours after surgery in the ICU with four drains coming out of her stomach and epidural that helped her tolerate the pain for four days

Gemma woke up nine hours after surgery in the ICU with four drains coming out of her stomach and epidural that helped her tolerate the pain for four days

‘I was in ICU for 5 days and then I moved to the ward for two weeks. This had its own challenges as no one could visit because of Covid except my husband for an hour. I was surrounded by people, by other sick people, very sick,’ she said.  

‘I also found out I have a very aggressive mutation which about 10 per cent of people have. Its called BRAFv600e and means it can move quickly (like a foot being on an accelerator).

‘For about 11 months, I was on surveillance scans and now have some nodules in my lungs that are being treated with targeted drugs.’ 

According to Bowel Cancer Australia there is a 14 per cent survival rate for those diagnosed with stage four. 

‘I try not to look at the statistics and have a great team of medical professionals around me that I trust to keep on going on,’ Gemma said. 

According to Bowel Cancer Australia there is a 14 per cent survival rate for those diagnosed with stage four

According to Bowel Cancer Australia there is a 14 per cent survival rate for those diagnosed with stage four

‘The purpose of this is to tell you my story of things I have learnt about resilience, knowing your body and being your own advocate – traits you can use in your daily life. I am passionate about creating awareness but to do that, we need to educate and tell our stories,’ she said.

‘Bowel cancer does not discriminate. It is the leading cause of cancer-related death for people between 25-44 and no one talks about it. 

‘It’s too often caught late which prevents early intervention. There is a lack of education and awareness about it. We need to be our own advocates and if something doesn’t feel right, it’s probably not.’

Gemma uses her online journal @havingthegutstodealwithbadsh*t to help others diagnosed with cancer maintain positivity and perspective.



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