Like most men, I’ve spent a lifetime avoiding doctors and all forms of preventative medical screening tests. Little did I know, that attitude would almost kill me.
I was diagnosed with bowel cancer three months before my 55th birthday. It changed the world for me, my wife and 12 year old son.
My diagnosis didn’t come about through awareness of bowel cancer. At the time, I didn’t know it was Australia’s second biggest cancer killer or that there’s a government screening program.
Bowel cancer can be symptomless, so it was lucky that I had minor pain in my abdomen for several months. I relented and visited my GP. He referred me to a urologist for a prostate examination. The examination was fine, but afterwards he said, “Lets talk about men’s health.”
His first question set in motion a chain of events that would save my life. “What other symptoms have you had?” he asked. I’d had diarrhea sporadically for a few months. He advised me to see a specialist.
Being a typical male, I shrugged my shoulders. I thought that once I was out of there, it would be over. No prostate issues to worry about. Everything seemed good. After all, men are only informed about prostate cancer.
However, my wife insisted that I see the surgeon. I did, and he organised a colonoscopy. A few days later, I was told that I had a diseased section of colon approximately 8cm in length that had to be surgically removed. Another appointment was made.
At the time of surgery, that 8cm section became a 30cm section of the colon that was removed along with lymph nodes and everything else associated with it.
Three days after the operation my surgeon gave me the bad news: I had stage 3A bowel cancer. It meant that as soon as I was sufficiently recovered, I would need chemotherapy.
He left my bedside saying, “Today is going to be a pretty rotten day, but don’t drop your bundle because we can beat this.”
I started chemotherapy four days into the New Year and it lasted for six months. Lethargy, nausea, loss of taste, nerve damage in my hands and feet, and a pulmonary embolism that could have killed me. These were just some of the side effects that still linger today.
As I was driving one day, I said to my son, “Mate, I don’t want you to go through life avoiding doctors like I have. You can see the mess that I’ve gotten into as a result.” He turned to me and said, “Dad, there’s no looking in the rear vision mirror here – we just have to fix this thing.”
According to my oncologist, if I had been screened in accordance with the Cancer Council’s repeated recommendations to the Australian Government (every two years after turning 50 years of age), it’s highly likely that my cancer would have been detected as a pre-cancerous polyp. It would have been removed during a colonoscopy, not threatened my life, and have been successfully treated for a few hundred dollars instead of the more than the $50,000 that my treatment has cost to date. I would have also avoided the trauma of treatment, side effects and ongoing monitoring.
I am now in remission and hoping to stay cancer free.
Like most people in the community, I knew almost nothing about bowel cancer until I was diagnosed with it. For all the wrong reasons I know a lot more now: its treatability, symptoms, impact on the community, and high mortality rate. I also know that the government could, and should, do a lot more.
My message to the community is simple. While bowel cancer can affect people of any age, if you’re heading towards the half century mark, or have already passed it, you’re in the most at risk group.
If you think that you may have a problem, go to your doctor and get it checked out. If you receive one of the National Bowel Cancer Screen program test kits, use it; it might save your life. If the screening kit detects a problem, you may be advised to have a colonoscopy. It doesn’t hurt and if you are embarrassed – don’t be. I can assure you, your doctor and nurses have seen it all before.
Performing any of these tests and simply being aware is infinitely better than the alternative of trying to beat cancer once you have it.
My message to the government is simple. You’ve dropped the ball on bowel cancer for a decade now but we can’t look backwards, we just have to fix things.
You can add your voice to Cancer Council’s campaign at www.getbehindbowelscreening.com.au
Kelvin O’Reilly, 56, lives with his wife and 13-year-old son on the Gold Coast, Queensland. He was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2010 and supports Cancer Council’s campaign for a government-funded bowel screening program and would like to see greater awareness of bowel cancer.