In the first of a new series to raise health awareness, Emily Scaife meets Wayne Smith - a bowel cancer survivor who is keen to spread awareness of the disease within the farming community.
“Before I went into hospital I wanted the surgeon to know that I wasn’t just another body for him to deal with. I’m a farmer. I love being outside with my livestock.
“And I needed to know despite whatever he did to me in that operating theatre I would still be able to return to my normal life and farm.”
Wayne Smith was only 46 years old when he was diagnosed with bowel cancer. He’d noticed he was needing the toilet much more frequently so, not one to ignore things, he went to his local GP, just down the road from his business, Oak Barn Farm, in Inkberrow, Warwickshire.
“The next thing I knew, my trousers were down and the rubber gloves were on,” Wayne jokes. But it very quickly became clear this was no laughing matter. The GP revealed she’d found a lump and would refer him to a specialist - but that she needed to prepare him for the worst.
“She said I needed to let me family know that is was likely I had cancer. My world fell apart,” he admits.
“We ate healthily, my fiancé Sue grows all our vegetables, we have our own lamb on the farm, we breed our own pigs - you think that you’re doing all the right things. So when you get that life-changing diagnosis where do you go from there?”
It took just six weeks from the initial GP appointment for Wayne to undergo all the necessary tests and receive his official diagnosis - but as he sits in his kitchen he says it was the longest wait of his life.
“It was a really quick turnaround, but if you know you’ve possibly got cancer that six weeks between suspecting and knowing becomes a slow-motion period of your life where you’re not sure what’s going to happen,” Wayne says.
As he sat on a hospital bed, the specialist arrived to tell him that there was good news and bad news. “He said he was 99 per cent sure it was cancer but he’d be able to operate on it,” Wayne remembers.
"And following the operation I might need chemotherapy and possibly even radiotherapy.
“The reason why I was having to go to the toilet so frequently was because the tumour was sitting in my anus - so my brain was being told that there was something to get rid of, when there wasn’t.
“In one way I was really lucky because it meant I noticed it quickly and went to the doctor early.”
Just one week later Wayne was on the operating table, ready for a 6.5 hour procedure that would change his life.
The surgeon would take out the lump and effectively remove his bottom, rerouting his internal waste system to a stoma, an opening that collects faeces and urine, in his stomach.
Wayne decided to write the surgeon a letter, telling him all about himself and how important a successful surgery was to his quality of life.
“I needed him to say that I could get back to my normal life and still farm,” Wayne says. “I also told him that Sue and I were engaged and planning on getting married - and that if he did a good job I’d guarantee he’d have an invite.
“He saw me afterwards and said that he’d operated on a lot of people but he’d never had a letter that had touched him so much.”
After coming round from the anaesthetic, Wayne wanted to get back to the farm as soon as possible, so he threw himself into adapting to his new life and body.
“The doctor told me I was young and fit from working on the farm all the time, so I should be out of hospital in five to six days,” he says. “So, of course, I was determined to be out in five.”
He followed all their instructions to the letter and more besides. Whatever distance they gave him to walk, he went a little bit further, determined to get back to the old Wayne. He only bent one rule.
“I wasn’t supposed to do anything exciting when I left the hospital,” he admits. “But Sue’s new sports car had been delivered so I couldn’t resist driving it home,” he laughs.
Prior to the operation the pair had prepared the house for his return. “I sold my Dexter tractor to fund the new walk-in shower,” Wayne says. “In one way it was sad, but in another way it never started well so I was pleased to get shot of it.”
To start with Wayne used a colostomy bag, but he quickly opted for irrigation jto pump water at 38 degrees temperature into his stoma. The water thoroughly cleans the area, before the contents are emptied into a toilet. IT’s given him a much better quality of life and enabled him to get back to work.
And get back to work he did, gladly returning to tending to the farm’s Saddlebacks, Gloucester Old-Spots, sheep and two holiday cottages.
Wayne is the first to admit he dreaded the prospect of chemotherapy and radiotherapy. So receiving a phone call on July 26 to say everything had been successfully removed and there was no need for further treatment was the best case scenario.
“The nurse who called me said everyone was in tears at the meeting when it was announced. Not having to go through potentially another 12 months was fantastic,” he says.
There are still hurdles to jump through - awkward airport encounters which saw Wayne set metal detectors off have inspired him to create bespoke training for airport staff and cabin crew. “For national security, I completely get that they need to check it out,” Wayne explains. “But they didn’t know what a stoma was - which was especially difficult on the return journey when English wasn’t their first language and they had a gun.
“My background is in training as I used to work for the Prince’s Trust, so this is my chance to turn cancer into something positive.”
He’s also hoping to enter the world of after dinner speaking to raise awareness of bowel cancer (not ‘before’ dinner, he is keen to emphasise). “It is the fourth most common form of cancer.”
“A lot of people, particularly those in the farming community, struggle on, but that isn’t an option with bowel cancer. It will get you. If you catch it early enough nearly everyone recovers. We created the hashtag #save1family because if you can save one person, it will save a family going through what we did.”
Wayne’s partner Sue agrees that bowel cancer doesn’t just affect the person diagnosed - it has a ripple effect that touches multiple lives.
“The thing I was most concerned about was whether Wayne was actually masking what was going on in his head, because we all know how bad farmers can be at bottling things up.
“I don’t think I’ve ever cried as much in my life. I was pathetic and in tears all the time.”
At this point, Wayne reaches across the kitchen table and takes her hand. “No. She was brilliant,” he says with tears in his eyes.
The couple have continued to grow their diversification business and were recently a finalist in the Digital Innovator of the Year category as part of the British Farming Awards.
Their promotion of green energy and creating awareness surrounding the environment has ensured they have found their niche in the luxury farm stay sector.
The couple have now been running their business for 11 years and it shows no signs of slowing down. Realising the impact of living in a stunning rural location, the couple felt they could further attract international and domestic guests by establishing a stronger digital presence.
Keen to engage with the local community and rural shows, the Smiths know their audience, which consists of 1,916 followers on Twitter and Facebook.
Wayne and Sue pro-actively post images of where to eat locally, local attractions and pictures of the area, especially on their popular Pinterest page, which boasts more than 2,000 followers and is the go-to place for customers thinking of visiting.
This, Wayne says, is an interactive way of allowing future guests or current bookings to see the list of possible things to do in the area. A blog is also written, which tells of their stories and events taking place on-farm.
There is no denying that surviving cancer changes your outlook on life but Wayne and Sue have decided to celebrate their second chance.
“When we were in consultations at various levels with various different people I came to realise that I didn’t want to be referred to as his ‘partner’, or ‘fiance’ - I wanted to be his wife,” Sue says.
“It made me really appreciate him and what he does around the farm and I wanted to marry him.”
Wayne and Sue will be married on 28 May in Inkberrow, before coming back to their farm to celebrate the very meaning of being together through sickness and in health.