A young Australian woman suffered gut issues for months before finding out she had stage three bowel cancer.  

Elise Stapleton thought of bowel cancer as an ‘old person’s disease’ before both she and her sister were diagnosed within two years of each other in their mid-thirties.

The 37-year-old initially thought her symptoms, including abdominal pain and diarrhoea, were related to her endometriosis which she had struggled with for years. 

However, a pelvic scan found a large mass in her bowel and the months following 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 hiding a romantic secret from her family after meeting a man on Hinge who supported her from afar during treatment. 

Elise Stapleton (left) thought of bowel cancer as an 'old person's disease' before both she and her sister (right) were diagnosed within two years of each other in their mid-thirties

Elise Stapleton (left) thought of bowel cancer as an ‘old person’s disease’ before both she and her sister (right) were diagnosed within two years of each other in their mid-thirties 

The 37-year-old initially thought her symptoms, including abdominal pain and diarrhoea, were related to her endometriosis which she had struggled with for years

The 37-year-old initially thought her symptoms, including abdominal pain and diarrhoea, were related to her endometriosis which she had struggled with for years 

In March 2021, Elise’s 39-year-old sister Lana had been diagnosed with stage four bowel cancer so her family swiftly got themselves checked for the disease.

Elise’s tests came back normal and there were no genetic links found.  

So less than a year later when Elise started experiencing symptoms, she never would have suspected cancer. 

‘I had very sporadic abdominal pain more so on my left side, loose bowels and diarrhoea. I was going to the bathroom all the time and had some fatigue but everyone feels tired these days,’ she said. 

She suspected it was her endometriosis ‘flaring up’ as the symptoms were very similar so she waited three months before eventually visiting her gynaecologist in October of 2022. 

The doctor recommended a pelvic scan to see what was going on with her endometriosis but it picked up a lesion in her bowel.  

‘At that point, my heart stopped. I was like, “Oh my god, it’s cancer” because no one wants to hear the word “lesion”,’ she said. 

In March 2021, Elise's 39-year-old sister Lana had been diagnosed with stage four bowel cancer so her family swiftly got themselves checked for the disease

In March 2021, Elise’s 39-year-old sister Lana had been diagnosed with stage four bowel cancer so her family swiftly got themselves checked for the disease 

With her sister’s history, Elise said her gynaecologist ‘didn’t muck around’ and was quick to get more specialists on board and conduct further tests and scans.  

‘Thankfully the MRI and CT (scans) came back saying there was no suspicion for malignancy,’ Elise recalled.

Elise’s gynaecologist and colorectal surgeon determined the lesion was likely her endometriosis causing the uterine lining to grow on her bowel so she was scheduled for a laparoscopy to remove it.  

‘I was planning to start a family and they said I need to be fit to be a mum so let’s do the endo surgery. I was going in for my fourth laparoscopy,’ she said. 

But surgeons were not sure certain what they were going in for. Elise would either need a small hole punch procedure or a full abdominal surgery if they found the mass was more serious.

‘My sister dropped me off and I had packed a bag for the night and said “I’ll see you all tomorrow”,’ Elise recalled. 

‘It probably was better going into the surgery with that attitude but it led to the biggest shock of my life once they woke me up.’ 

A pelvic scan found a tumorous mass in her bowel and he had to undergo multiple surgeries and chemotherapy

A pelvic scan found a tumorous mass in her bowel and he had to undergo multiple surgeries and chemotherapy

Elise knew something wasn’t right when she came to from the anaesthesia to see her surgeon and two nurses at the foot of her bed. 

‘I’ve had a few surgeries knowing you just have that one nurse beside you. I looked at my surgeon and said, “There’s something wrong”,’ she said. 

The surgeon broke the news they had found a mass and was ’99 per cent sure’ it was bowel cancer even though they had to wait for pathology results to confirm.  

‘I did believe that misconception that bowel cancer is an older person’s disease and it’s really not. My sister opened my eyes up a little bit but then I thought it wouldn’t happen to me,’ Elise said. 

‘It came as a complete shock. My world turned upside down that day.’ 

Just a few weeks after recovering from her surgery Elise returned to hospital to have another procedure where 30cm of her bowel was removed as well as some lymph nodes where the cancer had spread.

‘Your bowels take a while to get back into the swing of it. It stops your bowel function, I had an enema, I couldn’t open my bowels and then it’s the opposite, I was constipated for a week, I needed laxatives in hospital,’ she said. 

Weeks after recovering from her first surgery Elise had to have another procedure where 30cm of her bowel was removed as well as some lymph nodes where the cancer had spread

Weeks after recovering from her first surgery Elise had to have another procedure where 30cm of her bowel was removed as well as some lymph nodes where the cancer had spread

‘They’ve interrupted that flow of everything then you’re on a soft diet, you can’t really eat. There were a lot of changes going on in my body. The body is an amazing thing though, it’s very resilient.’

Elise then endured six rounds of chemotherapy over a gruelling three months. 

‘It was pretty horrible to go through what I went through, I would wish it on no one,’ she said. 

Elise’s family were by her side as she had surgeries and chemotherapy but she was hiding 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 swiping on the dating app Hinge and matched with a man named Kieran. 

The pair started chatting and went on a couple of dates where they hit it off. 

‘I had kind of given up on men and I was like, “This is not going to happen”, but then he completely blew me out of the water,’ she said. 

‘We had a really good connection then we kept in contact via 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 swiping on the dating app Hinge and matched with a man named Kieran (left)

Before her first surgery and diagnosis and despite her health scare, she was still swiping on the dating app Hinge and matched with a man named Kieran (left)

Elise thought Kieran would 'run for the hills' when he found out the full extent of her health issues but he was unperturbed. The pair got engaged on Christmas Day 2023

Elise thought Kieran would ‘run for the hills’ when he found out the full extent of her health issues but he was unperturbed. The pair got engaged on Christmas Day 2023 

‘I didn’t tell him full details at the start. I sort of said I’ve got some women’s business I’m getting sorted out.’

Elise thought Kieran would ‘run for the hills’ when he found out the full extent of her health issues but he was unperturbed. 

‘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 up”. He wasn’t in my face but he was giving me space,’ she said. 

‘I told no one then one of my sisters said to me “You seem to be coping really well”, and I said, “I’ve got a bit of a distraction going on, there’s this guy”. It’s almost like he helped me through it.’

Elise and Kieran kept in contact until she finished chemotherapy in June 2023. 

‘Three months later had my first full body scan and blood test and it came back – they don’t say cancer-free but – with no evidence of disease,’ Elise said. 

The good news gave Elise and Kieran the opportunity to date normally and they quickly realised they were in love. 

He completely surprised her when he proposed on Christmas Day in front of her family after asking her parents’ permission. 

Elise is using her experience to spread awareness that bowel cancer can affect young Australians. It is is the deadliest cancer for Australians aged between 25 and 44

Elise is using her experience to spread awareness that bowel cancer can affect young Australians. It is is the deadliest cancer for Australians aged between 25 and 44

The couple are blissfully engaged making plans to be married in November 2025 and Elise is feeling healthy again.

She is using her experience to spread awareness that bowel cancer can affect young Australians. 

‘Early onset bowel cancer rates are really rising and it’s becoming more and more common in younger people,’ she said. 

‘Don’t dismiss your symptoms, go and get checked. If you’re in doubt go and see your GP. Early detection of bowel cancer can save lives.’

According to Bowel Cancer Australia, the disease is the deadliest cancer for Australians aged between 25 and 44. 

The organisation 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 chocolate varieties: jammy, representing blood in your poo, gooey, for an obvious change in your bowel habit, airy for weight loss you can’t explain and chunk, for a lump or swelling in your abdomen.

Melbourne chocolate lovers can pick up a free box at Ryan L Foote Studio in Clifton Hill between 9am to 5pm until Sunday 18 February, or while stocks last. 

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