It’s the unimaginable – that terrible thing that always happens to someone else. It doesn’t happen to someone like Natalie Hunter, 44 – a fit, healthy, gym-going single mother of two with a booming business, and one of the Sunshine Coast’s foremost wedding makeup artists.
Yet, the unimaginable happened to Natalie in February this year, when she was delivered devastating news by doctors at Sunshine Coast University Hospital: she had aggressive stage four bowel cancer, and it had also spread to her liver.
Life was pretty normal for her before that day. There was no history of the disease in Natalie’s family, and bowel cancer was an older person’s disease, anyway – or so she thought.
It turns out she was wrong. Bowel cancer is actually the deadliest cancer and the sixth-leading cause of death overall in Australians aged 25 to 44, Bowel Cancer Australia reports.
Natalie’s experience and ongoing cancer treatment journey has led her to become an advocate for raising awareness of this frightening statistic.
She was the ambassador for K’s 4 Cancer: an annual fundraising run that supports Sunshine Coast cancer patients and their families. The event is run by Wishlist: a not-for-profit organisation that provides vital support services to patients on the Coast.
“Wishlist is an organisation that is close to my heart. It’s just incredible when you first get to experience walking through an accommodation facility like Wishlist Centre and know how many people benefit from having an affordable place to stay across the road from hospital – especially when undergoing cancer treatment,” Natalie says.
A passionate advocate of bringing awareness about bowel cancer to young people, Natalie says her diagnosis has given her a sense of purpose.
“When I got diagnosed, and once family was in the room – my brother and a friend had arrived, and I’d had time to process it a little bit – I said, ‘This isn’t going to get me. There’s a reason why this has happened,” she says
“My life’s changed so much. This gives me something to do and, hopefully, I can help other people.”
Natalie says being aware of the symptoms is vitally important for an early diagnosis and ultimately a better outcome.
“I didn’t even know what the symptoms were – that’s why it wasn’t in the forefront of my mind,” she says.
“Now I just tell everyone, if you just feel like something’s not right, go get it checked. It’s harmless to get it checked, and it’s better to be safe than sorry.”
Some of the major signs, she says, are a change in stools, blood in stools and fatigue.
She explains that in retrospect, she had some symptoms late last year and that they are “really obvious now” – a thinning of her stools, “random tummy pains” and extreme tiredness – but she did not associate them with anything sinister at the time.
Natalie visited her GP two days before her diagnosis, for what she thought was a bad case of constipation.
He had given her a colonoscopy prep solution (a powerful liquid laxative) to solve the problem. The solution did nothing, and after a second GP visit and another dose of the prep solution, Natalie was in agony, pacing the floor in the middle of the night.
“The kids [aged 11 and 14] were asleep in bed,” Natalie says.
“If they weren’t there, I would have called an ambulance then and there. But I just waited for the sun to come up, and then I woke up my son  and I said, ‘I’m going to have to go to hospital, I’m really, really sick’.”
Receiving the diagnosis, was a moment Natalie will never forget.
“It was just so strange. It just felt like your life literally did flash before your eyes. I was completely blown away. I thought, ‘Holy crap’, and I said to the doctor, ‘I can’t tell anyone’.
“The doctor said, ‘I’m going to get a social worker for you and you can talk to them first’. I spoke to them and after about half an hour, I’d kind of digested it slightly. I got on the phone to Mum and then Dad, and it was just a whirlwind from there.”
Within less than 24 hours, Natalie had undergone surgery to remove a large tumour that was blocking her bowel.
While the initial tumour was removed, other tumours that had grown on her liver had to be shrunk, so doctors could remove them safely.
Six cycles of aggressive chemotherapy followed, as well as more major surgeries on her liver and further treatment.
She says her doctors are impressed with how well she has responded to treatment so far, and attribute her recovery, in part, to her overwhelming positivity.
“The mind is such a powerful thing,” she says.
“As my oncologist said, ‘You’re responding so well and we’ve got a plan, but cancer also has its own plan, so we’ll just do step by step’.”
Natalie has had to quickly re-organise her life to accommodate her ongoing treatment and recovery.
She has stopped work, which meant handing all her clients to other people. Friends and family have rallied, surrounding her with support.
Her family, who live in southern New South Wales, come and stay for six to eight weeks at a time while she recovers after each surgery.
Her children, she says, have been “amazing” and are coping well.
“I feel really grateful that family and friends, my friendship group, and the community, have all been amazing,” Natalie says.
It’s not only on a practical level that Natalie’s life has changed. Her attitude to life has also – perhaps unsurprisingly – been completely transformed.
“My whole outlook on life has changed and it really is the little things that matter,” she says.
“Because you’re forced to stop, you have time to reflect and really evaluate what’s important in your life, and what matters.
“I think now, there’s a reason why we go to work and work so hard.
“You’ve got to stop and smell roses – you just have to.
“We just go, go, go. It’s such a rat race of a life now. But, oh my gosh, in the blink of an eye, it can all change.”
Credit to My Weekly Preview writer Linda Read and photographer Lisa Pearl.