Sir Bob Jones

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Bob Jones: Bizarre, John? No, bowel checks save lives

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John Key joked that his examination would not come with photos and he's wrong, says Bob Jones. Photo / Mark Mitchell
John Key joked that his examination would not come with photos and he's wrong, says Bob Jones. Photo / Mark Mitchell

At year end the Prime Minister went public with what he described as the most bizarre invitation he'd ever received, namely to set an example and have a bowel cancer check-up, presumably a colonoscopy. His "bizarre" comment says plenty about the uncaring attitude of GPs in never mentioning this to patients in their 40s, for it should be about as bizarre as visiting the dentist, more so as bowel cancer is the second-biggest cancer killer in this country.

I hasten to add I sympathise with despairing GPs, dealing as they do with everyone, including tattooed losers, the obese and diverse mumbling buffoons. In their place I'd probably act the same. Indeed, when I wrote a semi-serious column last year suggesting that Dr Harold Shipman was the medical profession's secret patron saint (he murdered several hundred old ladies), I received several letters from doctors. All lied by denying they'd ever succumbed to temptation and killed a patient but all added the rider that if someone did knock off half their patients, then the world would be an immensely better place.

I have no doubt they're right.

Twenty years ago I suggested to my GP I should have a complete check-up, so he booked me in for a series of specialists' consultations. On arrival at one and following a half-hour state-of-the-world discussion, I asked what I was there for. "You don't know?" he asked surprised. "I'm a bum man," and proceeded to explain bowel cancer and colonoscopies, all totally new to me.

I duly had my colonoscopy, which involved sedation providing a 15-20 minute sleep, so light I woke up during it and watched for a time before dozing off again. It was immensely less intrusive than having a tooth filling, and then I was off to play tennis. But not before learning that I'd come just in time.

John Key joked that his examination would not come with photos. He's wrong. It will. The specialist will show him photos of his insides afterwards. Assuming he has polyps - this the first, albeit not always inevitable step towards bowel cancer - the photos will show his pink flesh with little white dots, or if they've been there long enough, dark wart-like growths, these photos taken before they've nipped them off for examination.

Subsequently, I've had regular colonoscopies, always producing polyps, and more important, have become a proselytiser for the tests, regaling everyone over 40, and in the process, saving many lives. But not all. A well-known Wellington couple, friends of my older sister (another colonoscopy promoter), succumbed to her ear-bashing and booked themselves in for tests. The wife went first, with her husband scheduled for the following day. She came home with a clean bill of health so he cancelled, dismissing it as nonsense. Six months later he was dead of bowel cancer.

Read the newspaper obituaries. These are usually of famous people, which mostly means well-off folk who can afford circa $2000. You will regularly read bowel cancer as the cause of death. It angers me as such people probably looked after themselves but were simply never told of this by doctors.

You can do it a lot cheaper by cutting out the costly anaesthetic service. I have two affluent friends who elect to do this, not to save money but because they love watching on the big screen their own pulsating pink insides and chatting to the specialist.

"What's that white spot?" "Hang on a minute and we'll have a look." They find it fascinating.

A few years ago, Helen Clark investigated delivering mass colonoscopies, but the cost was prohibitive. That said, there are lots of almost costless options only they're not 100 per cent certain as with colonoscopies.

Note also that bowel cancer affects women almost as much as men. In Sydney last year I met a New Zealand woman over to visit her 32-year-old daughter who has bowel cancer, but that's highly unusual at that age. But everyone over 45 should get on with this pronto.

I don't know why doctors never mention this to their patients but the fact is they don't. For example, in New York in 1999 for the Lewis-Holyfield fight, I was tracked down by a prominent Sydney barrister. This chap's career had been solely acting for insurance companies in medical claims, in the course of which he had befriended many medical specialists he regularly used as expert witnesses. None had ever mentioned this but I had and he acted on it and had a colonoscopy. It was just in time and he would have been dead long ago had he not done so. But, my word, he was angry that none of his medical friends had ever spoken up. So just tell your doctor to organise it. They'll all agree, which might tempt you to ask why they had never mentioned it.

- NZ Herald

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