An experienced equestrian has opened up about being diagnosed with stage four bowel cancer after a run of health problems which started with being thrown off her horse.
Laura Barker, 40, a care practitioner in a children’s home, was thrown off her horse Torino after it was “spooked” in July 2018 and she landed on her back in the stable yard – leaving her in excruciating pain and unable to ride for a year.
Still in agony eight weeks after the incident, she saw an osteopath who suggested she have an X-ray, fearing she had broken her back. The day before her appointment, she was involved in an accident and her car was written off.
Laura, of Lancaster, Lancashire, said: “It was a rough week. I had the car accident, whiplash and then an X-ray at Morecambe’s Queen Victoria Hospital to see if my back was broken. The X-ray showed I had a fracture, so I was admitted to Royal Lancaster Infirmary, where I had an MRI and CT scan. I stayed for a week and was put in a brace.”
Signed off work for four months and given painkillers and physiotherapy, she recovered and returned to work in January 2019, finally getting back in the saddle and riding her horse regularly by the summer. But in the autumn, feeling abnormally tired, Laura realised something else was wrong.
“Usually, I’m a busy person. I’ve got a demanding job and I’ll be out on the horse or at the gym,” she said. “But I started to come home and just have my food and go straight to bed, which was weird for me. I saw the doctor and was tested for iron and vitamin deficiencies, but the results came back normal.
“I got through a hectic Christmas, but by January I was still feeling pretty tired, although I put it down to being nearly 40 and doing too much.”
But by March this year, Laura was feeling terrible – suffering with a gassy stomach, constipation and pain when going to the toilet. She was prescribed laxatives but when the symptoms persisted, she was booked in for an ultrasound at the end of April, which she cancelled because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Then, in May, her doctor tested her blood for the protein CA125 and found raised levels, which can indicate cancer risk, so her ultrasound was re-booked and revealed something on her liver, bladder and ovary.
Laura recalled: “Two days later, I had a CT scan and was referred to gynaecology while I waited for the results, so I was expecting they had found a cyst on my ovary or that I had a urinary tract infection. But the consultant said that, from looking at the results of the ultrasound, it was likely to be ovarian cancer.
“It was all a bit of a blur, but I was then referred to urology because they’d also found something on my bladder, but in the meantime, the results from the CT scan had come back confirming I actually had bowel cancer.”
She continued: “I was thinking, ‘Have I got both – ovarian cancer and bowel cancer?’. But it was actually the bowel cancer affecting everything. I think I was just in disbelief. I thought bowel cancer was something that 60-year-old men got. I could comprehend ovarian or cervical cancer, but I couldn’t really process this.
“The doctors told me it had developed from a polyp, an abnormal tissue growth, and was stage four because it had spread to my liver, bladder and ovaries.”
Three days later, Laura had a flexible sigmoidoscopy, where a tube with a camera is inserted into the rectum, so medics could take a sample for a biopsy.
“I could see the tumour on the screen. It looked the size of a grape, so in reality it was about golf ball size,” she said.
Acting swiftly, Laura had a three-and-a-half hour operation the next day to remove her entire sigmoid colon – the part closest to the rectum – as well as an ovary, her appendix, some tumours in her omentum, which is a layer of fatty tissue in her stomach, a portion of her bladder, and some lymph nodes. After removing the tumour from her colon, she was left with a temporary colostomy.
“The surgeon was unable to remove the tumours in my liver and part of my stomach, so I’m having palliative chemotherapy to try and shrink them or stop them from growing,” she said. “Doctors have told me they can’t guarantee me a cure and they are treating it aggressively. They are going to do everything they can.”
She said: “The tumour had possibly perforated my bowel, which is how it got into my omentum and liver. They couldn’t remove all of it so I may have to have surgery on my liver after the chemotherapy. The stoma, for me, is a secondary problem, I’m focused on getting better and if it is helping to keep me alive, I can cope with it. It’s an awful thing to have, but it does not stop you living.”
Now Laura, who has praised the “amazing” nurses and doctors who have looked after her, is facing six rounds of intravenous chemotherapy over the next 12 weeks.
“I had an appointment with my oncologist at the end of June and came out thinking things were going to be pretty awful. I did not leave feeling very hopeful but, since then, I have accepted that this is the road I’m having to go down,” Laura explained.
“I’m apprehensive about how my body is going to react to the chemotherapy. I might be fine or I might get very sick, but I’m going to do what I can to help myself and have been looking at things like a plant-based diet. I can’t give up.”
Her childhood friend Kate Symons has now launched a GoFundMe page, which has already exceeded its £5,000 target, to help Laura financially and with any future treatment.
“I’ve been bowled over by how generous people have been. It’s insane, and the amount of flowers and cards I’ve had have been lovely,” she said. “I have an amazing bunch of friends who try and see the humour in things. After my diagnosis we had a Chinese takeaway and a couple of gins in the garden.
“I opened my fortune cookie and it had no fortune in there at all. I don’t think that has ever happened before! You can imagine our faces, we were horrified. I was thinking, ‘Is this telling me I have no future?’. You couldn’t make it up.”
Laura continued: “But I had the spare cookie, which said something like, ‘Hope is the most precious thing to a person’. I thought I’d stick with that fortune instead!”
Laura is now determined to raise awareness of bowel cancer, in a bid to persuade fellow sufferers to act fast.
“I think what I have gone through highlights the importance of knowing yourself and recognising changes to your body,” she said.
“I knew something was not right. I wish I’d known more about this cancer and the CO125 test. Had I known about that I might have pushed for it earlier and then perhaps been diagnosed at stage two, rather than stage four.
“Bowel cancer is not just a disease that affects older people. I’m fit and healthy, I exercise, I eat a good diet, hardly have any junk food and I’m in the fresh air a lot. I didn’t think I was in the category to develop this kind of cancer. It’s frightening and there should be more awareness of it.
“Luckily, I’m resilient and you have to be in these situations. I’m not the kind of person to roll over, I’m wilful and it’s a case of trying to stay strong and positive and give myself hope.”