A young Australian woman suffered bowel problems for months before discovering she had stage three bowel cancer.
Elise Stapleton thought bowel cancer was an “old people’s disease” before she and her sister were both diagnosed two years apart in their thirties.
The 37-year-old initially thought her symptoms, including abdominal pain and diarrhea, were related to endometriosis, which she had battled for years.
However, a pelvic scan found a large mass in her intestine and the following months were filled with multiple surgeries and harsh chemotherapy treatments.
But while it was a painful and challenging time for Elise, her journey through cancer wasn’t all dark. She was keeping a romantic secret from her family after meeting a man on Hinge who supported her from afar during treatment.
Elise Stapleton (left) thought bowel cancer was an “old people’s disease” before she and her sister (right) were diagnosed two years apart in their thirties.
The 37-year-old initially thought her symptoms, including abdominal pain and diarrhea, were related to endometriosis, which she had struggled with for years.
In March 2021, Elise’s sister Lana, 39, was diagnosed with stage four bowel cancer, so her family was quickly screened for the disease.
Elise’s tests came back normal and no genetic links were found.
So, less than a year later, when Elise began experiencing symptoms, she would never have suspected cancer.
‘I had very sporadic abdominal pain, more on the left side, diarrhea and diarrhoea. “She went to the bathroom all the time and had some fatigue, but everyone feels tired these days,” she said.
She suspected it was a “flareup” of her endometriosis, as the symptoms were very similar, so she waited three months before visiting her gynecologist in October 2022.
The doctor recommended a pelvic examination to see what was happening with her endometriosis, but detected a lesion in her intestine.
‘At that moment, my heart stopped. I thought, ‘Oh my God, it’s cancer,’ because no one wants to hear the word ‘injury,'” she said.
In March 2021, Elise’s sister Lana, 39, was diagnosed with stage four bowel cancer, so her family quickly got checked for the disease.
With her sister’s history, Elise said her gynecologist “wasted no time” and was quick to bring in more specialists and perform more tests and scans.
“Fortunately, the MRIs and CT scans showed that there was no suspicion of malignancy,” Elise recalled.
Elise’s gynecologist and colorectal surgeon determined that the lesion was likely her endometriosis, which caused the lining of her uterus to grow into her intestine, so a laparoscopy was scheduled to remove it.
‘I was planning to start a family and they told me I needed to be fit to be a mother, so let’s have the endosurgery. I was going to have my fourth laparoscopy,” she said.
But the surgeons weren’t sure what they were targeting. Elise would need a small piercing procedure or full abdominal surgery if they discovered the mass was more severe.
“My sister dropped me off and I had packed up for the night and I said, ‘I’ll see you all tomorrow,'” Elise recalled.
“It was probably better to go into surgery with that attitude, but it led to the biggest shock of my life when they woke me up.”
A pelvic examination found a tumor mass in her intestine and she had to undergo multiple surgeries and chemotherapy.
Elise knew something was wrong when she came to from the anesthesia to see her surgeon and two nurses at the foot of her bed.
‘I went through some surgeries knowing you only had that nurse by your side. I looked at my surgeon and said, “Something’s wrong,” she said.
The surgeon broke the news that they had found a mass and was “99 per cent sure” it was bowel cancer, although they had to wait for pathology results to confirm this.
‘I believed this misconception that bowel cancer is a disease of older people and in reality it is not. “My sister opened her eyes a little, but then I thought it wouldn’t happen to me,” Elise said.
“It was a complete shock. My world turned upside down that day.’
Just a few weeks after recovering from her surgery, Elise returned to the hospital to undergo another procedure in which 30cm of intestine was removed, as well as some lymph nodes where the cancer had spread.
‘It takes a while for your intestines to work again. “It stops bowel function, they gave me an enema, I couldn’t have a bowel movement and then it’s the opposite, I was constipated for a week, I needed laxatives in the hospital,” she said.
Weeks after recovering from her first surgery, Elise had to undergo another procedure in which 30 cm of intestine and some lymph nodes where the cancer had spread were removed.
“They’ve interrupted that flow of everything and then you’re on a bland diet, you can’t really eat.” There were many changes in my body. However, the body is something surprising, it is very resistant.”
Elise then endured six rounds of chemotherapy over three grueling months.
“It was pretty horrible to go through what I went through, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone,” he said.
Elise’s family was by her side while she underwent surgeries and chemotherapy, but she hid one detail of her life from them: that she had met a man.
Before her first surgery and diagnosis, and despite her health scare, she was still using the dating app Hinge and was being matched with a man called Kieran.
The couple started chatting and went on a couple of dates where they hit it off.
“I had given up on men and thought, ‘This isn’t going to happen,’ but then he completely blew me out of the water,” she said.
‘We had a really good connection and then kept in touch through phone calls and messages. He went to Hawaii and was there at the time of my surgery.
Before her first surgery and diagnosis, and despite her health scare, she was still using the dating app Hinge and was being matched with a man called Kieran (left).
Elise thought Kieran would ‘run for the hills’ when he discovered the full extent of his health problems, but he was unfazed. The couple got engaged on Christmas Day 2023.
“I didn’t tell him all the details at first. In a way I said that I have some women’s issues that I am solving.
Elise thought Kieran would ‘run for the hills’ when he discovered the full extent of his health problems, but he was unfazed.
“He said, ‘I’m so sorry, I’ll let you be with your family, but when you’re ready I’d still like to catch you up.’ He wasn’t in my face but he was giving me space,” she said.
“I didn’t tell anyone, then one of my sisters said to me, ‘You seem to be doing very well,’ and I said, ‘I have a little distraction, there’s this guy.’ It’s almost like he helped me get over it.”
Elise and Kieran stayed in touch until she finished chemotherapy in June 2023.
“Three months later I had my first full body scan and blood test and the results were (they don’t say I was cancer free, but yes) no evidence of disease,” Elise said.
The good news gave Elise and Kieran the chance to date normally and they quickly realized they were in love.
He completely surprised her when he proposed to her on Christmas Day in front of her family after asking her parents for permission.
Elise is using her experience to raise awareness that bowel cancer can affect young Australians. It is the deadliest cancer for Australians aged 25 to 44.
The couple is happily engaged and making plans to marry in November 2025 and Elise is feeling healthy again.
He is using his experience to raise awareness that bowel cancer can affect young Australians.
“Rates of early-onset bowel cancer are really increasing and becoming more and more common among younger people,” he said.
‘Don’t dismiss your symptoms, go and get yourself checked. If you have doubts, go to your family doctor. Early detection of bowel cancer can save lives.’
According Bowel cancer AustraliaThe disease is the deadliest cancer for Australians aged 25 to 44.
The organization has teamed up with Melbourne food designer Ryan L Foote to launch a limited edition range of ‘Irregular chocolates‘.
Each chocolate reflects a specific symptom to help raise awareness of early-onset bowel cancer.
Each box contains four varieties of chocolate: jammy, which represents blood in the stool, sticky, for an obvious change in bowel habit, airy, for weight loss you can’t explain, and chunk, for a lump or swelling in the abdomen .
Melbourne chocolate lovers can pick up a free box at Ryan L Foote Studio in Clifton Hill between 9am and 5pm until Sunday, February 18, or while supplies last.