Suffering from cancer is a life-changing experience that nobody wants to have to go through.
But Aileen Sullivan Hopkins is hoping to inspire people to talk about cancer in a bid to remove the stigma that surrounds it.
The 57-year-old from Portsmouth saw her world turn upside down when she was diagnosed with colon cancer, also known as bowel cancer, two years ago.
It came just months after she split from her husband.
But now she has come out the other side, is in remission and is fighting fit and willing to help those in a similar position.
Back in 1994, Aileen found a lump on her right side. She had surgery to remove the lump, which turned out to be benign.
But it was more than 20 years later that her life really started to fall apart.
In April 2015, Aileen’s marriage broke down and she began to feel unwell.
‘I was constipated. I felt that I couldn’t empty myself out properly. But I just thought it was irritable bowel syndrome,’ she says.
‘I had no appetite. I was bloated and I was constipated. The pain would cripple me. I would eat my dinner in the evening and at about 9pm I had this pain on my left side.
‘I would have to hold on to a chair and wait for it to pass. Then, I would be sick.
‘I went to the doctor and she gave me some constipation remedies and different things to help with that but they seemed to cause more pain. Now I know why. The pain was getting longer in the evenings.
‘It’s because the tumour wasn’t letting anything go through.’
Aileen believes it was the circumstances in her life at the time that led to her cancer diagnosis.
‘I believe it was stress that showed up the cancer – so I am very grateful for the break up of my marriage.
‘I was in a very unhappy marriage. I was relieved to be out of it.
‘Being a Roman Catholic I couldn’t leave a marriage so this has given me a new life.’
Aileen was admitted to hospital by ambulance in July 2015, following vomiting and excruciating pain.
But she was sent home and then she couldn’t stop being sick again.
She was given some anti-sickness tablets which didn’t make any difference. She called for another ambulance and this time she was given a colonoscopy – an internal camera examination.
‘I had no blood in my stools so I had no warning,’ she says.
‘They said that they had found a tumour and that they were going to operate to remove it. My surgeon said I probably would not have made it longer than three months.’
Aileen underwent a five-hour operation to remove the tumour.
She then spent eight days in hospital as she didn’t have a home to return to.
Following the breakdown of her marriage, she was staying at the Women’s Aid shelter in Portsmouth.
A biopsy showed that it was a grade three tumour. ‘The surgeon knew that it was cancer straight away because it was that bad,’ she adds.
Aileen could not complete her 12th chemotherapy cycle but still counts herself lucky. She says: ‘A lot of people can’t because their blood isn’t good enough.’
In October 2015, she moved into a flat in North End, giving her back her independence.
Aileen has two teenage children that she doesn’t see following the breakdown of her marriage.
‘It hasn’t been easy for me but I feel now I have something to celebrate.
‘I have come through this resilient.
‘I am definitely more knowledgeable and a stronger and healthier person. My whole life has changed. My eating habits are completely different.
‘What I now know is I am well, I am estranged from my children so I have to concentrate on my life and my body and do the very best that I can for my health.
‘I am always there for my children - they know that. But I can’t be strong for anybody if I’m not there. I have to look after myself first.’
Aileen now lives with a stoma bag which has become part of her daily life.
She has also been forced to take early retirement from her job as a phlebotomist on health grounds.
She’s unable to stand for long periods of time and her scars mean she can’t reach her arms too much as it’s too painful. But for now, she wants to focus on helping other people.
She is writing a book called Cancer: The Great Challenge.
‘We need to be talking about cancer,’ she adds. Nobody wants to talk about cancer. Colon cancer is the second biggest killer.
‘People are afraid of cancer but we need to be embracing it.
‘We have got to bring it out there.
‘The fact that I have made it through makes me feel so strong and proud.
‘I know that I have done my very best.’
SYMPTOMS OF BOWEL CANCER
The symptoms of bowel cancer can be subtle and don’t necessarily make you feel ill.
However, it’s worth trying simple treatments for a short time to see if they get better.
More than 90 per cent of people with bowel cancer have one of the following combinations of symptoms:
A persistent change in bowel habit – going more often, with looser stools and sometimes tummy pain.
Blood in stools without other piles (haemorrhoids) symptoms. This makes it unlikely that the cause is haemorrhoids.
Abdominal pain, discomfort or bloating always brought on by eating – sometimes resulting in a reduction in the amount of food eaten and weight loss.
See your doctor if your symptoms persist.
For more information go to cancerresearchuk.org/bowel-cancer.