Teaching assistant diagnosed with bowel cancer at 22 reveals three symptoms people of all ages should know

·12-min read

A 24-year-old teaching assistant proudly teamed her summer festival outfit of a  blue bikini and furry coat with a walking stick twinkling with fairy lights and two stoma bags as she celebrated surviving stage three bowel cancer.

Diagnosed aged just 22, Sophie Anderson is now in remission and, inspired by bowel cancer campaigner Dame Deborah James, is determined to raise awareness of the disease – particularly in young people.

Sudden weight loss, passing blood and incontinence led to her initial diagnosis and treatment just after her 22nd birthday, only for the disease to return with a vengeance in October 2020 when a “football-sized” tumour was found on her bowel and harrowing life-saving surgery followed.

Refusing to be beaten, Sophie, of Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, who has enjoyed fantastic support from her police officer boyfriend Alex, 24, is now making the most of life, saying:  “So much happened to me, I shouldn’t even be here, but I am.”

She said: “I went to the Secret Garden Party festival in Huntingdon in July with my friends and we all got dressed up.

“I had put on more weight and felt more confident and wore a blue bikini and a fur coat and wrapped my walking stick in fairy lights.

“I felt really good. I had such a good time and laughed more than I had in years.”

Sophie first experienced health problems in 2016, aged 18, after starting a university course in operating department practice.

She said: “One day I needed to go to the toilet and passed a lot of blood.”

“It was weird, but it didn’t happen again for a while, so I thought maybe it was just a one off.

“Then I started to feel really weighed down, constantly bloated and fatigued.”

Putting her exhaustion down to stress, her mood soon dropped.

She said: “I was quite depressed because my body felt so weak and I couldn’t pinpoint why.”

Signed off from university at Easter 2017, as her mental health became increasingly fragile she moved back home, where she now lives with her mum, Elizabeth Anderson, 53, and sibling, Ash Anderson, 22, both teaching assistants, and saw her GP, who diagnosed depression and anxiety.

In July 2017, by then working as a carer, she began passing blood more often, saying: “Sometimes I would go for a week without anything,. Then there’d be lots and I was getting more constipated.”

Seeing different doctors over the coming months, she was diagnosed with digestive disorders including IBS, Crohn’s, ulcerative colitis, colon spasms and constipation – but no one suspected she had cancer.

I became very scared of the idea of dying in my sleep.

She said: “I remember saying to my GP that I have a history of bowel cancer on my mum’s side of the family.

“I think, because of my age, it was just assumed that it could never be cancer, though.”

Concerned in case her carer role was making her stressed and impacting on her health, Sophie switched to become a teaching assistant at her local special needs school in December 2018.

But her symptoms worsened and in summer 2019 doctors put her on a restricted diet, to see if she had Crohn’s disease.

When, by September, she had lost two stone, she was booked in for a colonoscopy, to check inside her bowels, while a biopsy revealed a month later that she had bowel cancer.

She said: “I remember being relieved at first, because it meant there was actually something wrong with me, but I think I just felt numb.

“I don’t think I heard anything else after they said those words.”

Given a colostomy operation to divert one end of the colon through an opening in the tummy, she then received three rounds of chemotherapy over six weeks.

After that, she had surgery at Addenbrookes Hospital in Cambridge in March 2020 to remove a grapefruit-sized tumour on her bowel, as well as a full hysterectomy.

She had part of her colon and her left ovary removed, where the tumour had grown so much and her temporary stoma to collect waste was also successfully reversed.

Luckily, further chemotherapy was cancelled, as she was confirmed to be in remission by July.

She said: “I’ve never cried because I was happy before, but I did as I was so excited and relieved to just get back to work and get on with my life.”

In the meantime, while Sophie knew that her grandmother, Hazel Cockrill, had died from bowel cancer in 1998, she did not know that her grandfather, John Cockrill, had from the same disease at the same age in 2011.

And investigations revealed that she had Lynch syndrome – a hereditary gene which shows a strong history of colon cancer – also detected posthumously in her grandfather’s DNA, as well as in her mum.

Sophie said: “It never occurred to me that I could have the same.”

Devastatingly, in October 2020, she felt unwell again, only to discover the cancer had returned and spread to her lymph nodes, making it stage three.

This time, she was told the tumour on her bowel was very large.

She said: “I started to think it was actually something that could kill me.

“It started to feel really real and to mess with my head.

“I became very scared of the idea of dying in my sleep.”

To try and shrink the tumour before surgery, she was admitted to hospital for three months of immunotherapy – a specialised cancer treatment.

She pulled through despite suffering significant liver damage and suspected sepsis – a life threatening reaction to an infection.

By June 2021,  Sophie was ready for a 14-hour operation to remove the tumour as well as part of her vagina, rectum, bowel, bladder, and tailbone, where the tumour had spread.

She also had pelvic reconstruction, some of the nerves down her left leg were cut due to the damage caused from her tailbone and a permanent colostomy and urostomy were fitted.

She said: “I felt numb.

“The doctors just listed everything I needed to lose and I started to think about how it would affect me day-to-day and had no idea what I would still be able to do.

“I was scared my life could be over and the surgery might not even work.”

With no guarantees of a cure, Sophie feared the treatment might be too much to bear.

The surgeon told me the tumour on my bowel and pressing on my organs had been the size of a football.

She said: “I was scared that I could be making myself disabled because they feared that I may get foot drop – which I thankfully didn’t – and I didn’t like thinking about life with two stomas.

“I was scared that I would lose so much of myself and it might not even be worth it. ”

In June 2021 when she arrived at St Mark’s Hospital, a specialist bowel unit in London, the last thing Sophie remembers is being given anaesthetic.

She said: “I remember sitting on the bed and being told I was going to need an epidural and then I don’t remember anything until a week later.”

She added: “I was told that I woke up after surgery and wouldn’t stop screaming.

“They found out I had internal bleeding, so I was taken back into the operating theatre for four hours and didn’t come to for another five days.”

In the meantime, she suffered a stroke, which means she now sometimes becomes confused or muddled.

She said: “The surgeon told me the tumour on my bowel and pressing on my organs had been the size of a football.”

Despite her positivity, coming to terms with her extensive surgery has been incredibly difficult for Sophie.

She said: “Losing part of my vagina made me feel like I wasn’t as much of a woman anymore.

“I was already completely infertile, with no possibility of having any biological children because of surgery. Then to have part of my vagina removed too was devastating.”

And while intimacy may be possible in the future, Sophie says it will not be immediate.

She said: “I do feel like I have lost a lot of my womanhood, especially as the hysterectomy means I am going through the menopause. It has had a huge impact on me.

“Alex and I have been together for six years and he’s been so supportive throughout. We have spoken about adoption in the future, or surrogacy. But we will just have to see what happens.”

For two months after her operations, Sophie was kept in intensive care, as she recovered from surgery and was slowly taught to manage with every day life.

She said: “I knew what was going to happen to me, but I had been in denial.”

She added: “Waking up with two bags on my stomach and not feeling my left leg was really scary. I felt broken.

“I needed four people to help me stand up on the first day. Then I just started learning to walk with very, very small steps.”

By August 2021, Sophie was home, starting a year of recovery – relying on her parents and boyfriend to help her rebuild her health.

She said: “My mum turned the dining room into my bedroom and made it homely with my get well cards and cats asleep on the bed.”

She added: “I started to be able to do my stomas myself and my own dressings and pain medication and to feel more independent.”

Gradually, Sophie has regained most of her strength and, by early summer this year, she began making plans with friends and is even hoping to return to work next month.

She said: “I hadn’t driven my car for two years as I wasn’t well enough.

“But in July, I finally got to drive it around the village. I was so nervous, but I felt like I finally had some independence to go and visit friends.”

Sophie added: “Alex and I went on a date to a steak house 10 minutes away from where I live, too, in October. I put on a dress and some make up and had my hair done. I felt more human.

“Alex has been brilliant. He came to appointments with me and visited me in hospital whenever he could.

“For so long, we were almost in this carer-partner relationship and now we are getting back into being a proper couple again.

“It was really hard, but I have been so lucky to have him. He has been really amazing. ”

And Sophie was overjoyed to join her pals at some of this year’s summer music festivals.

After the Secret Garden Festival she went to the Wilderness Festival in Oxfordshire earlier this month.

She also went on a charity-organised trip to Bournemouth, Dorset, in July, with other young cancer-survivors, to enjoy kayaking, pottery and fun by the seaside.

She said: “It was amazing getting back in the sea. I was nervous about my stomas, but they were fine and it was really good fun.”

As well as preparing to return to her school job in September, Sophie is keen to spread awareness of bowel cancer and to highlight how it can affect young people.

Bravely documenting her own progress in videos on her phone she said:  “No one seems to look for bowel cancer in people under a certain age.

“If someone had suspected I had bowel cancer earlier, I would probably be in a better position now.

“It is so important to recognise the symptoms, such as passing blood, bloating or fatigue – even if you are young, when it’s easy to brush off certain things and think they will go away.”

This summer I have done things that I never thought I would do again.

Sophie added: “You have to listen to your body and push to get the right tests done, because this could save your life.

“If, by raising awareness, I can get just one person to push to have a colonoscopy and get an early diagnosis, it will be worth it.

“I don’t want anyone else to go through what I have been through.”

Before returning to work, Sophie has a a trip to Plymouth, by the Devon seaside, to look forward to at the end of August, where she will be visiting family and friends.

She said: “I am so happy I am here.

“This summer I have done things that I never thought I would do again.

“I have seen other girls my age with the same disease not make it and it’s hard to know that they won’t get to grow up, have a family or go to the beach, like I am doing again.“I want to make the most of every day now and celebrate what I have and not what I have lost.”

Meanwhile, Alex could not be prouder of his girlfriend.

He said: “I can’t say anything else other than how proud I am of Sophie.

“Seeing everything she has been through has been the hardest thing I will ever face.

“After having the surgery last year and everything that happened, when I saw her walk for the first time without support or a crutch, I have never felt more proud.

“To go through all that and then be willing to talk about it and try and help others, just makes me love her even more.“It all made me realise that the thing I loved most about her was how determined she was. I didn’t know it when I met her, but it was her determination that made me fall in love with her.”

For more information about bowel cancer go to: https://www.bowelcanceruk.org.uk/