Real Life

Terminal cancer at 35: “You’re never too young”

Gemma is defying odds after her symptoms were missed.

While many people dread their milestone 40th birthday, Gemma Farquhar was elated to celebrate hers this month. The Sydney mum of two planned a huge party, with the focus of the celebrations the mere fact she is still alive.

After being diagnosed with stage 4 bowel cancer at age 35, Gemma wasn’t sure she’d even make her 36th birthday. She tells New Idea, “The research said I only had 12 months.”

Incredibly, Gemma’s strength and determination – along with a raft of aggressive surgeries and drugs – mean she is currently beating all the odds. Four years on from her diagnosis, she is living as normal a life as she can with husband Richard and daughters, Phoebe, 10, and Lily, eight, by her side.

She is by no means complacent about it though. And with June being Bowel Cancer Australia’s Awareness Month, Gemma is warning other women not to be either.

Even though bowel cancer is the deadliest cancer for Australians aged between 25 and 44, Gemma’s symptoms were initially dismissed by medics.

Gemma Farquhar with her two daughters.
Gemma’s grateful for each day she gets with her two girls. (Credit: Supplied)

“Nobody investigated bowel cancer because I was young, fit and healthy and had no family history,” she says.

“It’s the same for the young community I’ve connected with who have advanced bowel cancer. Their age meant it wasn’t even considered as an option.

“I had a couple of episodes where I was profusely vomiting. It was bizarre as they were a couple of months apart. And there was abdominal pain and cramping. The doctor kept saying I had gastro.”

A parasite and food intolerance were also investigated. Even when Gemma sought a referral to a gastroenterologist, bowel cancer testing wasn’t done.

It came to a head in April 2020. Gemma was sent for a CT scan following intense cramping and violent sickness. The results shocked everyone.

gemma Farquhar standing next to a machine in a hospital
Gemma documents her cancer journey on Instagram. (Credit: Supplied)

“I was told to go to emergency and that I had colon cancer. I needed an operation the next day to remove 13cm of my bowel,” she says. “I had no idea what was going to happen to me.”

Over the following months, the news didn’t get any better.

After cancer was discovered in her ovaries, Gemma was given the stage 4 cancer diagnosis. She needed a peritonectomy –aka ‘the mother of all surgeries’, as doctors cut a patient down the middle, taking out multiple organs.

Since then, cancer has also been found in her lungs but, with more surgery and new “miracle drugs”, it’s currently held at bay.

“I’m so grateful for every birthday. I’ve seen Phoebe turn 10 and both girls go to a new school, but the future is a big unknown,” Gemma says. Her husband Richard also keeps her going, as does the online community at Bowel Cancer Australia.

“I’ve learnt so much along the way, I want to be able to share it,” she says. “My main advice if people are worrying about a symptom is to rule out the bad stuff first. I wish I’d pushed harder for answers early on.”

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