Concerned Christchurch surgeons volunteer to give free bowel cancer tests
A dozen Christchurch surgeons are so concerned about a lack of publicly-funded testing for bowel cancer that they are giving their time to test people for free.
New Zealand has one of the highest incidences of bowel cancer in the world, with more than 3000 people diagnosed and 1200 deaths from the disease each year. A growing number of younger Kiwis are also developing cancer after a late diagnosis.
Yet, people aged under 50 with rectal bleeding – a key symptom experts say requires further investigation regardless of age or family history – rarely make the threshold for publicly-funded bowel cancer testing.
The cash-strapped Canterbury District Health Board (CDHB), which forecasted a $61 million deficit blow out this year, recognised the gap for people under 50 and said the free service offered by local surgeons would be a "transition" while the board got back on its feet.
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Christchurch colorectal surgeons and gastroenterologists approached the Canterbury Charity Hospital and St George's Hospital to provide the service.
Both hospitals started providing free theatre time this week for specialists to carry out flexible sigmoidoscopy tests on up to eight patients each week.
Charity Hospital co-founder Dr Phil Bagshaw said the initiative would save lives.
The charity had been providing bowel cancer testing for people turned down by the public system for several years but the new initiative would cover more people, he said.
Christchurch colorectal surgeon Frank Frizelle said older patients made up the majority of colorectal cancer patients, but international and new New Zealand research showed an increasing number of men and women under 50 were being diagnosed with such cancers.
An Otago University and Christchurch Hospital study published this month in the British Journal of Surgery shows the incidence of colon cancer in New Zealand men under 50 from 1995 to 2012 increased by 14 per cent per and the incidence of rectal cancer increased by 18 per cent. Rectal cancer in women under 50 increased by 13 per cent during the same period.
The CDHB did not have the resources to run a bleeding clinic for people under 50.
"There's only so much money. We are trying to do something about it instead of whining about it," Frizelle said.
Surgeons volunteering at the Charity Hospital would not be paid and the ones giving their time at St Georges would be paid a small fee.
He hoped charity could "temporarily fill the gap" until the CDHB was able to pick up the service in a few years.
CDHB acting chief executive Mary Gordon said the board supported the initiative, which showed "just how strong the health alliances are across the region".
"With our rapidly increasing population, the second fastest growing in New Zealand, coupled with the constraints of our facilities as we rebuild, we see this free clinic as a transition.
"We have recognised there is a gap for those under 50 years of age and once we have all our hospital facilities available to us, we anticipate offering more comprehensive colorectal services within the hospital."
St George's chief executive Greg Brooks said enough surgeons and staff had stepped up at both hospitals to fill allocated theatre times for the initiative until the end of the year.
A Bowel Cancer New Zealand spokeswoman said the initiative would be needed elsewhere in New Zealand as well.
"Clearly current services are not meeting demand," she said.
"It is vital that workforce development occurs urgently – something our charity has been calling for since 2010."
Not all bowel cancers could be detected by flexible sigmoidoscopy though, she said.
"People who remain symptomatic after the sigmoidoscopy should seek further diagnostic services."
Cromwell woman Katherine Andrew wants her life back.
Over the past two-and-a-half years, the 37-year-old mother-of-three has undergone 46 chemotherapy sessions.
While her bowel cancer is now under control, the disease took a toll on her and her three boys, aged 7, 6 and 2.
Andrew first had rectal bleeding in 2011 but was only diagnosed with stage four bowel cancer in 2015 after the tumour grew so large it was protruding out of her stomach, causing excruciating pain.
She was told the cancer had been developing over the past five to eight years.
Several symptoms – including strong abdominal pain, constipation and abnormal fatigue – had been brushed before she was finally diagnosed.
In early 2015, she visited three GPs and begged them to investigate her constant abdominal pain but was told it was probably indigestion.
"You're only going to get special treatment if you're over 50," she said.
Getting a diagnosis earlier "would have saved a lot of time, a lot of grief and a lot of money".
"I'd still have my life. I would still be working, we'd be financially secure and under a lot less stress."
An earlier diagnosis could have prevented her developing cancer, she said.