Young mother raising awareness for bowel cancer

Doctor and patient smiling.
Above: Nikki McAteer with RGH Oncologist Dr Sanjana Kondola. Below: Nikki with her husband and three children.
June 29, 2021

Mother of three Nikki McAteer was diagnosed with bowel cancer three years ago at the age of 29.

Nikki’s symptoms included stomach issues, bleeding and a sense of fullness when going to the toilet.

Nikki’s journey to a diagnosis took eight months and included visits to different general practitioners, numerous tests and a referral for a colonoscopy and endoscopy.

Her grandfather died from bowel cancer and her mother had also died from breast cancer, so Nikki felt a heightened sense of urgency to find out what was wrong with her.

“After my colonoscopy and endoscopy, the surgeon was very concerned about a severely ulcerated tumour she had noticed,” Nikki said.

Family of five smiling.

“While I waited for the results, I kept thinking I wasn’t going to be here for my kids.”

Nikki’s results showed she had bowel cancer that had progressed to her lymph nodes, but thankfully no further.

“The surgeon said if it had been left any later it might have been a different result,” Nikki said.

This was the moment Nikki realised she would have to face the challenge of treatment head on. 

Nikki soon started radiation therapy followed by chemotherapy at Rockingham General Hospital (RGH) which is where she met her oncologist, Dr Sanjana Kondola.

“When Nikki walked through my door, I could see in her face a determination to do whatever she needed to do to survive,” Sanjana said.

“She’s an incredibly brave and strong woman – a true survivor.”

Nikki said with her kids to live for, she was happy to undertake whatever treatments were necessary.

“Being open to and accepting of the options available to you really helps,” Nikki said.

After the first round of radiation and chemotherapy, Nikki had abdominal perineal resection surgery, which removed the tumour as well as her rectum and anus. She now lives permanently with a colostomy bag. 

“I sometimes struggle with the fact I can’t leave the house without supplies, but for the most part it’s pretty easy,” Nikki said.

“I am still learning what I can and cannot eat, and I know if I don’t drink enough water I struggle.”

After the surgery, Nikki underwent another round of chemotherapy and is now part of a five year survivorship program with Sanjana.

“Being treated at RGH has been a wonderful experience – many of the nurses cared for mum during her chemotherapy, so I knew I was in good hands,” Nikki said.

“I can’t help but wonder if my mum had a little part to play in that.”

For the first two years of the survivorship program, Nikki had three monthly blood tests and a CT scan every six months. Now in her third year, the blood tests are six monthly with an annual CT scan until she reaches the five year mark. After five years, she will be considered recovered, but will have regular colonoscopies for the rest of her life.

The program also supports patients to make good lifestyle choices with regards to exercise, diet and smoking.

Nikki’s journey has taught her to live in the moment and not stress about the little things.

“My big goal was to return to full-time work, which I have just done, and it was amazing,” Nikki said.

While it is Australia’s second deadliest cancer, bowel cancer is one of the most preventable through early detection. A common misconception is that it only affects older people, but it is on the rise in young people under the age of 50.

This Bowel Cancer Awareness month, Nikki wants to highlight her experience with the deadly disease and send a message to other patients to advocate for their health and their bodies.

“At the end of the day, only you know what you’re feeling and what your body is like, so if you notice changes you aren’t comfortable with, then push for more information,” she said.

“If you have any of the symptoms, regardless of your age, don’t ignore them – speak to your doctor and advocate for your health, because no one else can,” Nikki said.

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