'Embarrassment could've robbed my kids of their dad'
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Beating cancer 'not beyond us'
My heart lurched the evening my husband casually mentioned he had booked an appointment with a colorectal surgeon for a colonoscopy.
He had not told me he'd been experiencing intermittent blood in his stool for a few months and had been ignoring it due to fear of an embarrassing conversation with his GP.
We'd recently lost a close friend to colon cancer. Aged only 36, she was diagnosed at stage four after two years of symptoms that her GP repeatedly dismissed as haemorrhoids. Our young children had played together while her disease progressed and until the end.
As we waited for the colonoscopy I feared for our own little people (aged 2 and 4). Then my husband was diagnosed with stage three colon cancer - a tumour had spread to one lymph node. The CT scan, MRI and surgery occurred in rapid succession over two weeks, followed by six months of chemotherapy.
Private medical insurance is the only reason my husband is still here, as at 36 years old he was too young to qualify for public screening programs.
He's now in his first year post chemothrapy and he will have yearly checkups for five years.
New Zealand has one of the highest rates of colorectal/bowel cancers in the OECD countries, and colorectal cancer is the third highest cause of cancer death here. Each year about 3000 Kiwis are diagnosed with it, and more than 1200 people die - a mortality rate similar to breast and prostate cancers combined.
However, bowel cancer can be treated successfully if it is detected and treated early. Bowel cancer is caused by the growth of polyps in the colon or rectum, for a variety of reasons including genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors. Over time the polyps may change to become cancerous, resulting in development of bowel cancer. If the polyps are removed early, in a colonoscopy, the risk of cancer development is mitigated and regular screening can start.
New Zealand has one of the worst bowel cancer death rates in the world. PHOTO: 123RF.COM
However, New Zealanders are not getting colonoscopies as screening through the public health system is difficult to access unless you are over 60 years old or your symptoms are severe.
Different regions of New Zealand have varying rates of colon cancer. The highest rates are in Southland, the West Coast, Otago and South Canterbury.
My husband’s family is from the West Coast and since his experience, one friend at home has died from terminal bowel cancer, while two friends, both aged under 38, have been tested and diagnosed with colon cancer, and three others with polyps. In total, we know seven people affected from Westport, a town of 4111 people.
No one in this group has tested positive for known genetic markers for colon cancer development. Every doctor I have spoken to about this has said this seems highly unusual and worthy of further investigation, although no one is actually doing so as far as I am aware.
Unfortunately, many cases probably go unnoticed due to the high number of locum GPs in the area and patients may not be seen over a period of time sufficient for doctors to consider colon cancer. It is well known that people living in the regions are diagnosed later and with more advanced diseases than those in cities, suggesting differences in access to specialist care.
However, in our case the West Coast is where my husband and his friends were raised, but now most of them live in cities like Christchurch and Wellington, which perhaps suggests an environmental exposure during youth.
While the government has determined it is not cost effective to screen people under 50 years old in the public health system, we are sitting on an epidemic that is killing young people - the incidence of colorectal cancers is increasing at the highest rate among the under-50 age group.
Each of the seven people I know who have been diagnosed with polyps or colon cancer has two children. This means that for every one of them who is diagnosed too late, two children would be left without a parent - this is the true cost of colon cancer screening.
Actions you can take:
* Consider what is a normal bowel movement pattern for you, and monitor your habits. Learn the symptoms to watch for here.
* Do not be embarrassed; bowel movements are normal body functions and nothing to be shy about. After all, we all celebrate eating together - an activity integrally linked to bowel function.
* If you have concerning symptoms, do not accept "You’re too young to have bowel cancer" and ask your GP to be referred for further investigation. If your GP won't refer you, consider self-referral. It may be the best money you have ever spent.
* Share your story and increase bowel cancer awareness. You may well end up saving another life.
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