How cancer 'saved my children'

By Martin Johnston

Genetic discovery in mother’s illness means survival for daughters

Fiona Taylor (front) with her eldest daughters (from left) Aleisha Morris and Natasha and Jennifer Martinsen, who have tested positive for an inherited cancer-causing gene mutation. Photo / Alan Gibson
Fiona Taylor (front) with her eldest daughters (from left) Aleisha Morris and Natasha and Jennifer Martinsen, who have tested positive for an inherited cancer-causing gene mutation. Photo / Alan Gibson

Fiona Taylor has endured surgeries, terrible pain and other symptoms from cancer, yet manages to find something good in it all.

Of her six daughters aged 11 to 23, the three older ones will now also have life-saving surgery to remove the large bowel. The alternative is the 100 per cent certainty of bowel cancer by mid-life.

Mrs Taylor said there were a lot of tears when the three - Jennifer Martinsen, 23, Aleisha Morris, 20, and Natasha Martinsen, 18 - were diagnosed with the same genetic disorder that caused their mother's serious illness.

"When Natasha found out, I remember us both bawling our eyes out, because I felt terrible knowing I had passed this on to them, especially knowing they are only young. But this [surgery] is going to save her life and that's how we have to look at it," said Mrs Taylor, 39, a grandmother of two young boys.

She was diagnosed in January last year with bowel cancer that had already spread to her liver. She expects she may have at least five years to live.

It was caused by a rare change in the gene called APC. This fault leads to a proliferation of potentially pre-cancerous growths called polyps in the large bowel.

As well as being inherited, the alteration can occur spontaneously. Each child of a person who has the altered gene has a 50 per cent chance of inheriting the mutation. Untreated, the condition inevitably leads to bowel cancer.

Mrs Taylor's three older daughters were tested internally by colonoscopy last year and are booked for surgery at Waikato Hospital next month.

Aleisha, of Morrinsville, who married in March and has a son aged 3, said it was enough of a blow to find her mother, who had always been healthy, had cancer.

"We went into it thinking it was a routine check-up and we would have to keep an eye on it. Then when we found out, we were pretty much mind-blown by it and the fact me and my sister had it. Then when my older sister went in a few months later, we were completely shocked as to how strong the gene is."

Mrs Taylor experienced bowel problems and low energy several years ago but put it down to divorce and long working hours. She sought medical help in December 2012 after the problem flared up and she was going to the toilet up to 22 times a day with diarrhoea and pain.

A blood test showed anaemia and she was sent for internal examinations. The pain was now "horrendous". Surgery followed, to remove her large bowel, then two operations to remove liver tumours, radiation and rounds of chemotherapy.

"Some would say it's been really tough but it's made me who I am. I wouldn't change it. I've probably saved my children's lives."

Her three younger daughters, aged 11 to 14, were yet to be tested as it was important to deal with the older ones first.

Associate Professor Susan Parry, clinical director of the NZ Familial Gastro-intestinal Cancer Service, said: "The key message is if you do have a family history of bowel cancer, particularly if it occurs at a young age, get it checked out."

- NZ Herald

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