Is bowel cancer on your radar? If not, you’ll likely find the following statistics as sobering as I do:
- Every year in New Zealand, bowel cancer kills around 1,200 people, and 3,000 are diagnosed.
- This form of cancer kills more Kiwis than breast and prostate cancer combined.
- The major reason New Zealand’s death rate from cancer is 10% higher than Australia’s is due to bowel cancer.
- New Zealand leads the OECD in rates of bowel cancer occurrence and death. We are also one of the few OECD countries without a national screening programme.
Of the many reasons why Kiwis are succumbing to bowel cancer at such a devastating rate, the lack of a national screening programme is at the top of the list – but our reluctance to discuss bowel health is another culprit. We will talk readily and openly about MRIs and CT scans, about what went on at our last physio appointment and the best way to do a breast self-exam, but the bowel seems to be a bridge too far.
As chairperson of the national charity Bowel Cancer New Zealand, I have a vested interest in breaking down this barrier and encouraging parents to talk to their children about what is normal and when you should see your GP. I have three sons of my own, and the eldest was just six months old when I was diagnosed with stage three bowel cancer at age 28. My treatment involved a bowel resection, a liver resection, eight rounds of chemotherapy over nearly half a year, and enormous amounts of love and practical care from my family and friends.
Fortunately, more Kiwis are learning about bowel cancer, and there is growing support for BCNZ from donors and fundraisers around the country. Our primary sponsor, Cottonsoft, is in its third year of campaigning on our behalf. Bowel Cancer Awareness Month is June, and this year Cottonsoft produced 20,000 specially marked packs of CottonSofts toilet paper covered in facts about bowel cancer, and donated $1 from each pack to BCNZ to help with our awareness campaign. Supermarket shoppers snapped up every pack within days of their release. The support of Cottonsoft has been instrumental in the headway we have made as a national charity over the past few years.
Eight years after my diagnosis I am healthy and determined to help more New Zealanders survive this disease. There are both personal and more public steps you can take to help protect your family and change the statistics for the betterment of all New Zealand families.
First, know the most common symptoms of bowel cancer:
- Bleeding from the bottom (rectal bleeding) without any obvious reason. Other symptoms can be straining to make a bowel movement, soreness, lumps and itchiness.
- A persistent change in bowel habit, such as going to the toilet more often or experiencing looser stools, lasting several weeks.
- Abdominal pain, especially if severe.
- Any lumps or mass in the abdominal area.
- Weight loss and tiredness (a symptom of anaemia, which can indicate internal bleeding).
Should any of these symptoms present, visit your GP as soon as possible, and remember you are always entitled to seek a second opinion. If you know you have a family history and have never had a bowel screening test, ask your GP about the best way to monitor your bowel health, even if you have no symptoms and feel as fit as a fiddle.
Second, talk to your loved ones – parents, siblings, children, wider whanau – about bowel health and what to look out for, and about your family medical history. Talk to your friends about bowel health in the same way you would discuss any other health issue. Shyness has no part in the fight against bowel cancer.
Third, if you would like to help BCNZ turn around our terrible national statistics, please write to your local MP, the Minister of Health and associate ministers to demand action on bowel cancer – specifically, the immediate introduction of a national screening programme.
The pilot bowel screening programme of the Waitemata District Health Board has been an unreserved success, and the government has recognised this by providing funding in the 2015 Budget to extend it to December 2017. However, the lack of investment in a national programme and the necessary workforce to support it means that if you don’t live within the catchment area of that sole DHB, you are severely disadvantaged.
The good news is that if detected early, bowel cancer has a survival rate of 75%. However, New Zealand cannot boast anywhere near this rate, and to a degree, your likelihood of survival fluctuates according to where you live. In particular, South Canterbury, Otago and Southland have higher rates of bowel cancer.
There is much we still have to learn about bowel cancer, but experts around the world agree that early detection saves lives. Help reduce the stigma attached to talking about bowel cancer so we can get New Zealand to the top of the OECD table for the right reasons. And if you would like to know more about anything related to bowel cancer in New Zealand, visit http://www.beatbowelcancer.org.nz/.