Anika’s story: Living with cancer and after

For young mum Anika Millington, a sudden diagnosis of colorectal cancer was life-changing.

“I just had a feeling with all the symptoms I had that that was what it was, and I probably put off going to get it checked out just because I didn’t really want to hear it,” she admits.

“But it was a shock at first because this just does not happen to 36-year-old mothers of three, who are healthy and fit and eat well and don’t smoke.”

And yet, increasingly, it does. Anika is among the growing number of younger people being diagnosed with colorectal cancer, also known as bowel cancer. Many don’t experience any symptoms at all until the cancer is quite advanced – or the symptoms are vague enough to attribute to other causes.

An unexpected diagnosis

As a mum of three children under six, Anika says, it was easy to put things down to just the normal exhaustion that comes with managing a growing family.

But after about six months of symptoms, including a couple of occasions where she bled from her bowels, she knew she had to seek help. Anika was diagnosed with Stage 2 colorectal cancer. She had surgery and then six months of chemotherapy.

“The biggest challenge for me was trying to keep things as normal as possible for my children,” she says. “I took every drug for every side effect that they could give me, but still, you’re pretty sick.”

Anika playing with one of her children and their pet dog.
Anika, with one of her children and their pet dog.

But according to Anika, her determination to experience her cancer “consciously” was what helped her power through the experience.

“It might sound a bit warped – I wanted to really live it so I could use the experience to be of benefit to others.”

She also adds, “I’ve got three kids. I can’t lose the plot.”

Anika set out to mindfully develop a way to think about treatment and help herself cope.

“I see a lot of people who give the middle finger to chemo, but I don’t see it that way. I felt, ‘Well, yes, it does feel that way, but this is highly likely saving my life’… I tried to see it from that perspective.”

Planning so she could still spend time with her kids also helped her keep going. “I made sure I scheduled all my nausea medication so that I was able to cook dinner every night or give them a bath and tried to lie down through the day when they were at kindy or school.”

Bridge to the ‘new normal’

Today, Anika has been in remission for several years. But her own experience has made her realise how important the post-cancer journey is – and how neglected it can be. She founded the Cancer Club as a post-cancer coaching program to help people like her bridge the gap between treatment and their ‘new normal’.

“You’ve gone through this massive process of surgeries and radiation and chemotherapy… Of course, when you finish the last session, everyone’s really excited about it. They go, ‘Congratulations, I hope we never see you again,’ and you’re like, ‘That’s great, but I’m still different now.’

“Life goes on for everyone else, but you’re still in that kind of grief, or no-man’s land. That’s the part I really struggled with and took a long time to understand.”

Along with supporting cancer survivors, Anika is passionate about the need for more early testing and research – and awareness of the disease.

“It’s not the sexiest part of your body, but it’s really important that if you’ve got blood coming out of there you go and get it checked out, or if your toilet habits are changing.”

For Anika, there is always a lingering fear that the cancer will return. Now that her kids are older, they know why she goes in for a colonoscopy every year. But she’s grateful for the treatment she received, and hopeful about the future.

She recounts the day she had her chemo pump taken out for the last time and had gone to pick up her youngest child from kindergarten.

“I’ll never forget. My son came running up to me and then stopped and said, ‘Have you got your bag on?’ They called it my bag which was where they couldn’t jump on me because there was a needle.

“I said, ‘No, I’ve just got it off and it’s never going on again.’ And he goes, ‘Yay!’ and gave me the biggest hug. So I thought, ‘Oh God, it better not go on again.’”

Thank you Anika for sharing your story. Learn more about colorectal cancer.

You can help make new treatments happen for colorectal cancer and other GI cancers. Donate to our research today.