Tamsyn Cornwall knew the news wasn’t good as soon as the doctors asked if she was bringing a support person with her – even though they were in lockdown and visitors weren’t allowed at any of her previous appointments.
The Auckland woman had been feeling unwell since last May but thought her symptoms were linked to the Inflammatory Bowel Disease that she’s had since childhood.
“Initially I thought it was a flare (up) because it was very similar in terms of symptoms with lots of blood and fatigue and pain but this was excessive, next level crime scene, and I hadn’t ever been so sick … I just knew something was really wrong.”
She spoke to her specialist who booked her in for a colonoscopy during which polyps were discovered and she was admitted to hospital for more tests.
After the results of the CT and MRI scan came back in August the then 30-year-old received a call to come back in.
“They were like ‘oh, are you going to bring your support person?’ and I was like, ‘wait, hold on’, because we were in level 3 and I wasn’t able to bring anyone before so I kinda had an inkling it was something serious.”
Cornwall, who works with disabled and special needs preschoolers, had her mother at her side when she was told she had stage 3B bowel cancer.
“It was extra scary, and I almost knew what was happening before I was in there, and then just hearing those word ‘you have cancer’ I just broke down and couldn’t stop crying. It was just such a heavy thing to hear.I was just overwhelmed and didn’t know what was going to happen.”
She had surgery to remove her colon in September and then started a three-month chemotherapy cycle but her body couldn’t tolerate it so she was switched to another kind that lasted six months.
“I couldn’t stop vomiting and I had excessive diarrhoea and I thought ‘this is it’. I didn’t want to feel like I was giving up on chemo … but I was like I don’t want to die but I can’t keep doing this chemo because it’s going to kill me.”
Cornwall is now four weeks post chemo and still very much feeling nauseous and fatigued.
But, despite those side effects she’s doing her bit to help others with bowel cancer.
She’s one of more than 250 people who have signed up for Bowel Cancer New Zealand’s June fundraiser – the Move Your Butt challenge which aims to raise awareness, and funds that will help other patients.
The aim is for people to get sponsored in exchange for exercising daily for the month of June.
The challenge was something Cornwall was quick to accept as she tries to rebuild her strength following surgery and chemotherapy.
“I think it is about focusing on myself but at the same time being able to spread awareness for the second largest cancer killer in New Zealand is really important and I think for me it kinda drives me and inspires me to be as healthy as I possibly can despite what’s been happening to my body.”
She has spent the past few weeks trying to do something little each day.
“I’m still really fatigued and quite nauseous and have lost so much body strength but for me it’s all about doing something little each day.”
At the moment exercise is done in small doses but she hopes to be able to step things up slightly as the challenge progresses and her strength builds.
“I actively choose to do something, not to tire myself out, but for the sole purpose of getting stronger and raising awarenesses, even if that’s just going through a yoga flow or 10 minutes on my exercycle and sweating out the toxins – kinda farewelling the chemo that’s in my body.”
Cornwall said the diagnosis, surgery, chemo and recovery have been tough at times and at one stage she wrote out a will and froze her eggs.
“I seriously did think I was going to die, it’s just so hard to even talk about because it’s just such a scary thing. The unknown in general is scary but when you are so seriously faced with life and death it’s a lot to take in.”
The part-time model now has a stoma bag which collects waste on the outside of her body in the absence of her colon. But, the bag no longer worries her as she sees it and her scars as “proof I still exist”.
Cornwall is now urging people to watch for any signs that something isn’t right and not be embarrassed about talking to a doctor.
“It’s really important to listen to your body and if something is wrong to have those conversations – whether they are uncomfortable or not -and talk with your doctor about any concern you might have.
It’s important to take those things seriously -we have got such a tendency to brush things under the rug and think ‘I’ll be fine.”
She is also encouraging others, including many of her 16,700 Instagram followers, to sign up to the challenge.
“It will be awesome to get as many people sign up as possible. Bowel Cancer New Zealand is amazing. Without them we wouldn’t have counselling and physio and those are so essential to the process and what you are going through … having those services available is so amazing,” she said.
“Counselling is so underrated and it’s so important to have someone you can talk to who you don’t have to explain all your medical stuff because they already understand.
Move your Butt is amazing because it not only gets you out there and moving and doing something amazing for your body, it’s also raising funds for an amazing cause that really does help people, cancer patients like myself who are going through so much.”
Bowel Cancer New Zealand general manager, Rebekah Heal said the money raised will help fund patient support services such as counselling which is “needed now more than ever”.
“This June, we’re aiming to get everyone off the couch and moving more – even if it’s just a 10-minute walk a day. Not only are they helping themselves prevent bowel cancer– but by getting their friends and whānau to sponsor them, they’ll be raising valuable funds to help us continue to support the 3,000 Kiwis diagnosed each year with bowel cancer.”
Move your Butt month is supported by a range of ambassadors, including television presenter Jenny-May Clarkson who’s brother died from bowel cancer at age 54.
“If you know something isn’t right, and you’re scared of getting checked, think about those who love you – think about your kids and your partner and the love they have for you. Bowel cancer has a ripple effect on everyone close to you. So if you have any symptoms, get them checked early – for their sake,” she says.
In memory of her late brother, Clarkson will do 54 ‘wall balls’ a day this June – a strenuous exercise that she says will be “tough, but manageable” during her busy schedule.
“Sometimes pushing yourself to move isn’t all that comfortable, but neither is bowel cancer. We’re all going through tough times right now, but those with cancer are doing it tougher.”
MOVE YOUR BUTT CHALLENGE:
• The fundraising campaign runs from June 1 to 30.
• Kiwis are being asked to challenge themselves by doing more exercise than normal – and getting sponsors to back their campaign for the month.
• The challenge does not need to be extreme, like running a marathon; it simply means challenging yourself to exercise more than you usually do, walking, running, cycling or even star jumps.
• The money will help fund patient support services such as physio rehabilitation and counselling programmes.
• For more information or to sign up visit www.moveyourbutt.org.nz
Bowel cancer symptoms worth talking to the doctor about:
• Bleeding from the bottom or seeing blood in the toilet after a bowel motion.
• Change of bowel motions over several weeks without returning to normal.
• Persistent or periodic severe pain in the abdomen.
• A lump or mass in the abdomen.
• Tiredness and loss of weight for no particular reason.
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