“I thought I’d just hurt myself in the garden. But they’ve just told me I’ve got bowel cancer.”
This was the phone call my mum received from my nan almost 10 years ago. At the time, her diagnosis didn’t seem real to me. At 14, I’d never heard of bowel cancer, let alone known or read about someone having it.
But for her, it was real. And uncomfortable. Embarrassing, even.
These are just some of the reasons we don’t hear enough about bowel cancer, and why many who are at-risk don’t know it themselves. Far from being a shameful disease, the outlook for bowel cancer patients is up there among the most positive. Well, as positive as it can get when we’re talking about cancer.
Thankfully, my nan was one of the lucky ones. Lucky because she survived, but also because she caught it early.
It’s true that we often don’t start to care about things until they touch our lives, or take someone from us. So here’s what I’ve learnt since bowel cancer almost took someone away from me.
1. It's more common than you might think.
According to the National Bowel Cancer screening program, approximately 80 Australians die from bowel cancer every week. It's Australia's second biggest cancer-killer, which is one of the highest rates in the world. Of those diagnosed with the disease, one in 19 men and one in 28 women will receive that diagnosis before the age of 75.
And yes, your family history is important, but it doesn't exempt you - two thirds of bowel cancer patients do not have a family history of bowel cancer.
The thing I've learnt about bowel cancer is it doesn't discriminate. Being outside the most at-risk age bracket of 50 to 74 doesn't give you a free pass if you've got a family history of the disease. Yes, bowel cancer could be classified as 'an old person's cancer', but it's not just old people who suffer from it.
2. Bowel cancer patients survive, if caught in time.
More often than not, a bowel cancer diagnosis isn't a death sentence. If caught in time, 90 percent of bowel cancer patients are treated successfully and go on to life relatively normal lives.
Sure, it's not always peachy. For my nan, life in remission is a little more complicated than it used to be. Lots of foods don't sit well with her anymore, and being close to home in case she suddenly needs the bathroom dictates when and where she can go out.
But she's able to spend a large chunk of her time in her block of units' community garden like she used to, and she's still able to watch ABC 24 and talk to anyone who'll listen about how 'that Malcolm Turnbull' could use a talking to. Because she's still here.
It's these small pleasures in life that Nan, and many other bowel cancer survivors, are able to enjoy thanks to an early diagnosis and successful treatment.
3. You can easily screen for it.
Unlike some other cancers, it's relatively easy to screen for bowel cancer, making it that much easier to get ahead of the disease. For those who are eligible, the screening kit is even free. The test is quick, easy and painless, and can be purchased (or collected if eligible for a free test) from pharmacies.
The test can be easily completed at home without a doctor present, and involves collecting samples from two separate bowel motions. These samples can then be returned to a pathology laboratory, per the kit's instruction for analysis.
About one in 13 people will have a positive result, which can be due to a number of conditions, including but not limited to bowel cancer. If your result is positive, you'll be referred to your nominated GP who can guide you through the next steps.
What I know now.
This year, my mum turned 55. She's now eligible to receive a free bowel cancer screening test, and thanks to my nan, I'll be making sure she uses it.
The message with bowel cancer is simple. Get tested.
For more information about bowel cancer and bowel screening kits, visit the Australian Government's National Bowel Cancer Screening Program website.
This article should not be taken as professional medical advice. If you or someone you know is struggling with their help or experiencing any symptoms of bowel cancer, please seek professional health and visit your GP. If in immediate danger, call 000.
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