Sophie Anderson, a 24-year-old teaching assistant, wasn't about to let her bowel cancer recovery bring down her outfit as she attended Secret Garden party this summer.
Anderson, from Cambridgeshire, paired a blue bikini with a faux fur coat, her two stoma bags and wrapped her walking stick in fairy lights as she celebrated surviving stage three bowel cancer at the Huntington festival in July.
"I felt really good," she says. "I had such a good time and laughed more than I had in years.”
Anderson first experienced symptoms of bowel cancer in 2016. She was 18 and had just started university.
“One day I needed to go to the toilet and passed a lot of blood,” she explains. “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.”
Anderson initially blamed the symptoms on stress. “I was quite depressed because my body felt so weak and I couldn’t pinpoint why.”
Anderson’s mental health became increasingly fragile in 2017, and after visiting her GP, she was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. But Anderson began passing blood more often.
“Sometimes I would go for a week without anything and then there’d be lots and I was getting more constipated,” she explains.
After seeing multiple doctors, she was diagnosed with several digestive disorders including IBS, Crohn’s, ulcerative colitis, colon spasms and constipation – but no one suspected she had cancer, even after she warned them that might be the case.
“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,” Anderson says.
By September 2019, Anderson 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.
“I remember being relieved at first, because it meant there was actually something wrong with me, but I think I just felt numb,” she says. “I don’t think I heard anything else after they said those words.”
Anderson was given a colostomy operation to divert one end of the colon through an opening in the tummy, and three rounds of chemotherapy over six weeks.
After that, she underwent surgery at Addenbrookes Hospital 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.
By July 2020, Anderson was told that chemotherapy was no longer needed and she was in complete remission.
“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,” she says.
But by October that year, Anderson felt unwell again, only to discover the cancer had returned and spread to her lymph nodes, making it stage three.
“I started to think it was actually something that could kill me. It started to feel really real and to mess with my head,” she recalls. “I became very scared of the idea of dying in my sleep.”
Anderson was admitted to the hospital for several months, where she received immunotherapy, and underwent multiple operations 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.
“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,” she says.
“I was scared my life could be over and the surgery might not even work.”
And despite her positivity, Anderson admits that the extensive operations are difficult to come to terms with.
“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.” she recalls.
But gradually, Sophie regained the majority of her strength.
However, just after her 22nd birthday, Anderson experienced sudden weight loss, passing blood and incontinence, which led to her initial diagnosis and treatment.
And in October 2022, the disease came back with a vengeance in the form of a “football-sized” tumour in her bowel.
After a harrowing life-saving surgery, Anderson is now in remission and refusing to be beaten.
And after taking some inspiration from the late bowel cancer campaigner Dame Deborah James, Anderson is determined to raise awareness of the disease – particularly in young people.
“So much happened to me, I shouldn’t even be here, but I am,” she says.
By early summer this year, she began making plans with friends and is even hoping to return to work in September.
“I started to be able to do my stomas myself and my own dressings and pain medication and to feel more independent,” Anderson says.
After the Secret Garden Festival she went to the Wilderness Festival in Oxfordshire earlier this month, she also joined other young cancer-survivors on a charity-organised trip to Dorset.
“It was amazing getting back in the sea. I was nervous about my stomas, but they were fine and it was really good fun,” Anderson says.
And as she prepares to return to her school job in September, Anderson is keen to spread awareness of bowel cancer and to highlight how it can affect young people.
“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,” Anderson says.
“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.”
Anderson urges young people to get tested for bowel cancer if the signs and symptoms are there.
“You have to listen to your body and push to get the right tests done, because this could save your life,” Anderson pleads.
“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.”