Kathy McAllister (51), from Lisburn, has launched a very personal campaign called Think Bowel Cancer across social media.
A sporty woman who carefully followed a healthy vegetarian and vegan diet, Kathy didn’t fit the traditional stereotype for bowel cancer, which is often linked to unhealthy lifestyle and older age.
Now, through a hard-hitting social media campaign, she wants to warn others that age and health are no barriers to getting the potentially deadly disease.
She says: “I was blindsided when I found out I had bowel cancer.
“I am launching this campaign as I am determined to save lives and prevent others from having to go through what I have.
“Putting myself out there like this and exposing myself is not something I do lightly, but I want to raise awareness and make people take notice.
“The perception that someone can be too young or too healthy for bowel cancer has got to change as thousands of people are ignoring obvious symptoms, dying and suffering unnecessarily.
“I would urge people to forget the stigma of talking about their poo as it can save your life.”
Kathy’s campaign coincides with bowel cancer awareness month, which runs throughout April.
Now the UK’s second biggest cancer killer, over 50% of cases are preventable if caught early.
Her diagnosis of stage three bowel cancer in 2019 was life-changing.
She came through 18 months of gruelling treatment, including three surgeries and two courses of chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
A former BBC and UN marketing director who has lived in London for the past 25 years, Kathy is currently retraining for a new career as a cancer exercise specialist in Northern Ireland.
Her own diagnosis was difficult because she had suffered from irritable bowel syndrome for a number of years and fears that it masked her bowel cancer symptoms.
It was when she started to lose control of her bowel movements that she went to her GP in London and the cancer was picked up.
She says: “When I was diagnosed, I was all over the place. I felt like a zombie and was just full of shock and worry.
“I had to have 25 days of chemotherapy treatment in London back-to-back, along with radiotherapy which ran over Christmas, and that was the first ever I was not in Northern Ireland for Christmas.
“When the treatment ended, I came home to recover and wait to see if it had worked and if I would need surgery or not.”
Unfortunately, the treatment did not have the desired effect and it became apparent that Kathy would need surgery.
Covid-19 had just hit and the nation went into the first lockdown in March 2020, making it impossible for Kathy to return to London for surgery.
Instead, she was placed in the care of a team at the Ulster Hospital in Dundonald and underwent the first of three operations in April 2020 in the middle of lockdown.
She says: “The team at the Ulster Hospital was great to me. There were no delays and everything was so quick.
“Because of Covid, no one was able to come into the hospital to see me.
“I was already so traumatised and that made it worse.”
For Kathy, the most devastating blow of all was being told she would have to face life with a permanent stoma.
Having already come through so much, she now believed that life as she knew it was over.
She admits: “At the time, hearing that I needed a stoma was worse than hearing that I had cancer. It left me feeling suicidal.
“I know that sounds ironic because cancer kills you and it sounds really wrong to say I didn’t want to live, but I am so sporty, and as a young single female, I couldn’t see how I could live with it.
“I thought I would have to stay in the house for the rest of my life, I really did.
“I thought I could never play sport again, and without my sport I didn’t want to live.
“I go to the gym several days a week, I play tennis and I run, and suddenly I couldn’t see myself being able to do that anymore.
“I was so naïve and didn’t even know that a stoma was part of bowel cancer.”
While coming to terms with her uncertain future, she also faced a massive operation.
Kathy explains: “My surgery was one of the biggest there is and involved removing a stomach muscle to reconstruct part of my vagina.
“I didn’t lose my hair, but I did lose my rectum, anus and part of my vagina, and that’s hard to come to terms with mentally and physically.
“I’m an intelligent, professional woman who knows how to ask questions, yet still I had no idea how tough and gruelling chemotherapy and radiotherapy would be.
“If I had been aware of the symptoms earlier, I could have avoided this. I’m facing the consequences of that.
“Over half of all bowel cancer cases in the UK are preventable. That is terrifying.”
The Think Bowel Cancer campaign launch includes a short video and six posters that highlight that bowel cancer can affect anyone, challenging the widely held perception that it only affects old people.
Kathy is grateful to the creative team who helped her to put it together.
It included award-winning London creative director
Dave Waters, BBC TV presenter Stephen Watson, professional photographer Peter Bennett, BBC/ITV cameraman Albert Kirk and BBC editor Gary McCutcheon.
Everyone provided their services for free to make the campaign happen.
Kathy says: “I am taking a huge step and fronting a campaign showing people my stoma and all of my scars in the hope of educating the UK to recognise symptoms, take action and literally get their a** to the doctor immediately to get early treatment.
“No one thinks it’s going to be them. I wish I had recognised the symptoms and acted sooner. I regret that.
“Don’t be that person who regrets not going sooner.”
Today, Kathy is fit, healthy and far wiser about what needs to change.
“If I had been as frightened about getting cancer as I have been about getting Covid-19, I would have been much more proactive about recognising symptoms and pushing the doctor to do tests,” she says.
“There is too much complacency about cancer, particularly bowel cancer, and not enough urgency.
“Covid-19 showed us what can be done and the behaviour change that can happen when the government acts urgently.
“The stats say that one in two of us will be affected by cancer in our lifetime.
“Progress is being made, but I believe that the government should be doing much more on prevention, early diagnosis and delivering faster, more visible and transparent progress towards cures.”
Kathy has a supportive family in Lisburn, but because of Covid she had to face her ordeal largely alone.
Despite having a focus on raising awareness of the disease itself, she is also keen to provide encouragement for people who face cancer alone and show it’s possible to come out the other side.
She has now quit her high-profile marketing career and recently qualified as a personal trainer and cancer exercise specialist to be able to support others going through cancer with exercise therapy.
She says: “It was really stressful managing hundreds of people in a high-performance corporate company.
“Exercise is so important for me. I exercised all through my treatments and it did really help with my recovery.
“Even though I was really fit, I still found it tough enough. It is known that if you are fit and healthy, you will be more resilient to cancer.
“I know most people going through chemotherapy will not feel like exercising, but I want to help to motivate them to do it and help them with some gentle training.
“It’s quite new for Northern Ireland, but it is something that is growing in the UK.
“It saved my life and kept me going.
“Exercise was my lifeline, and now I would like to help others. I believe exercise is the best medicine.”
In the meantime, she hopes that people will take notice of the message behind her campaign, which you can find @thinkbowelcancer on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn