Rebecca Quilliam

Rebecca Quilliam is senior reporter at the APNZ News Service office in Wellington.

Dying of embarrassment: NZ tops bowel cancer rates

Catriona Jackson, who is suffering stage four cancer, says anyone who thinks they might be showing symptoms of cancer should get to the doctor immediately.
Catriona Jackson, who is suffering stage four cancer, says anyone who thinks they might be showing symptoms of cancer should get to the doctor immediately.

New Zealand and Australia have topped a World Health Organisation report into worldwide bowel cancer rates, prompting a support group to call for a publicly-funded national screening programme.

New Zealanders were dying from embarrassment because of a reluctance to speak with doctors about bowel cancer symptoms, Beat Bowel Cancer Aotearoa said.

"The survival rate of New Zealanders with bowel cancer is just 55 per cent. That is tragically low when you consider 75 per cent of bowel cancer cases can be treated successfully if diagnosed early," chief executive Megan Smith said.

Nearly 100 people had been treated for cancer after using a pilot screening programme that was being run in Waitemata, but the Ministry of Health was still two years away from deciding if it would be rolled out to the rest of the country.

The WHO report, released last month, collated results of estimated cancer incidents worldwide from 2012 data.

It said bowel, or colorectal, cancer was the third most common cancer in men (746,000 cases or 10 per cent of the total) and the second in women (614,000 cases or 9.2 per cent of the total) worldwide.

Almost 55 per cent of the cases occurred in more developed regions and the lowest rates in Western Africa, WHO said.


"Too many people are dying"

Ms Smith has called for a free screening programme to curb the country's high death rate.

"We need New Zealanders to become familiar with the symptoms of bowel cancer, and unembarrassed about seeking medical attention when any or all of these symptoms present.

"Too many people are dying because they are too embarrassed to talk about their symptoms."

Support was also needed at a Government level through a national screening programme, Ms Smith said.

"A programme that is available to all Kiwis, like those in place for breast and cervical screening, would have the potential to prevent one in three people with bowel cancer from dying from the disease."

A Ministry of Health spokesman said a decision about rolling out a screening programme across the country would be made in two years when its pilot programme was completed.

That programme had been running since 2012 and in 18 months had detected cancer in 98 people.

"More than half of the cancers detected have been found at an early stage when they can be more successfully treated," he said.


"There's nothing out there"

Ms Smith's comments are backed by a cancer sufferer who says that when it comes to information about symptoms, there is "nothing out there"

When 48-year-old Catriona Jackson was diagnosed with bowel cancer 18 months ago, she was told by her surgeon to go and work on her bucket list.

The diagnosis came as a shock because for two years her GP had said her stomach pains were indigestion.

It wasn't until she persisted he sent her for a colonoscopy.

After the diagnosis Ms Jackson underwent chemotherapy treatment and the cancer went into remission.

"About October last year it came back aggressively. It spread to my lymph nodes from my bowel.''

She now has fortnightly chemotherapy sessions as she battles against the disease.

Her friends had offered "huge support'' and have helped raise funds for drugs she needs.

Ms Jackson said her cancer was at stage 4 - "they're just trying to keep me going for as long as they can''.

"But people do beat it.''

She was not surprised at New Zealand's ranking on the WHO report because of the lack of information around symptoms.

"There's nothing out there. I had no idea and nobody told me I should be having a colonoscopy.''

A publicly-funded screening programme "had to happen'', Ms Jackson said.

Her advise to anyone who thought they might be showing symptoms of cancer was to get to the doctor immediately.

"And push and push for a colonoscopy. I wish I'd done that.''

For more information, go to beatbowelcancer.org.nz


Symptoms of bowel cancer

• bleeding from the bottom or blood in the toilet after a bowel motion;

• change of bowel motions over several weeks;

• persistent or periodic severe pain in the abdomen;

• a lump or mass in the abdomen;

• tiredness and loss of weight

• anaemia


The New Zealand perspective

• the most commonly registered cancers in NZ are prostate and bowel cancer.

• bowel cancer is the second most common for men and women, and the second most common cause of cancer death.

• bowel cancer causes as many deaths as breast and prostate cancer combined.

- APNZ

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