This was one of NZH Lifestyle's top stories for 2017
Bowel cancer is the second highest cause of cancer death in New Zealand but it can be treated if it is detected early. Here Australian Sherie Hagger shares her story.
I was a healthy 31-year-old when I started to experience some unusual symptoms.
I was constantly bloated and in so much pain. I was a size 10 but had to invest in elastic waisted pants because nothing in my wardrobe would fit me properly around my stomach.
I looked pregnant, but I most definitely wasn't. I tried everything I possibly could to help ease the bloating. Peppermint tea, hot water bottles on my stomach, I even stopped eating gluten and dairy to see whether that would help, but nothing worked.
I also suffered with diarrhoea. Everything I ate and drank went straight through me within an hour. I couldn't even drink plain water without feeling bloated and sick. So I stopped eating and became very fatigued and malnourished.
I had already been diagnosed with Crohn's disease when I was 15 years old. I was under the care of an excellent gastroenterologist, but because the symptoms I was experiencing were so similar to my Crohn's symptoms, we put it down to a Crohn's flare.
This went on for about three months before I started to believe that something more sinister was going on. The usual medication for Crohn's was not working, so I begged for a colonoscopy.
I believe that colonoscopy saved my life.
When I woke from the procedure, I could see the look in my specialist's eyes and knew it wasn't good news. I had bowel cancer. It wasn't until I underwent major surgery that we found out the extent of the cancer: It was in my lymph nodes, it was stage 3 bowel cancer.
Bowel cancer is the second biggest cancer killer in Australia, with approximately 4000 people dying each year. With a 68% survival rate, it falls well behind the survival rate in other cancers such as breast, melanoma and prostate, all with survival rates of 90%.
So, understandably, my diagnosis terrified me.
Treatment involved several major surgeries and five weeks of daily radiotherapy which left me with third degree burns.
Once I had recovered from the radiation burns, I then endured six months of weekly chemotherapy infusions. The side effects of chemotherapy were worse than my cancer symptoms. I was certain that the chemo would kill me before the cancer did.
Once I finished all my treatment, I was discharged from the care of my oncologist and my surgeon, and this is where I noticed a huge gap in the system. Bowel cancer requires ongoing monitoring, but it felt like no one knew what to do with me.
Unlike breast cancer, where there are breast care nurses available to patients, bowel cancer patients have nobody. We are simply left to our own devices post-treatment, with no access to nurses or any ongoing care or support.
I took it upon myself to find someone willing to take charge of my cancer monitoring, and I am glad that I did, because two and a half years after my initial diagnosis, a new tumour was discovered.
So what's going wrong? Firstly, the Australian Government's free bowel cancer screening program is only available to people over the age of 50. Sure, you can buy your own screening kit from the chemist, but if the Government is telling us we don't need to worry about it, or screen for it, until we are over 50, we are going to take that advice.
Too many people believe that it is a cancer only for the over 50s, but that couldn't be any further from the truth.
The number of people under the age of 50 who are being diagnosed with bowel cancer is increasing at an alarming rate. It is a very treatable cancer, if caught early, but most cases are not being caught soon enough.
Doctors are turning young people away, with the simple reason being "you're too young to have bowel cancer". So we have both the Government and our doctors telling us we're too young.
There is also an element of people being too embarrassed to discuss their bowel habits. It is not a glamorous topic of conversation, and there is definitely a stigma attached to it, with people finding this topic "gross" or "embarrassing".
The initial test for bowel cancer screening is so simple, and is done in the privacy of your own home, there is nothing gross or embarrassing about it. However if you do ignore your symptoms, and end up with bowel cancer, let me assure you, you will kiss your dignity goodbye and you will be forced into telling your doctor all about your bowel habits.
The symptoms often resemble the symptoms associated with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), or an inflammatory bowel disease such as Crohn's or Colitis. Young people are being misdiagnosed or turned away, so by the time their cancer becomes clearer, it is too late, it has already spread, they are hospitalised and they are faced with their own mortality.
So what can you do to reduce your risk of going through an experience like mine?
Firstly, buy a screening kit from the chemist or online from Bowel Cancer Australia. It costs less than $40 and could potentially save your life. Even if you have no symptoms, it is worth doing for piece of mind, and can be done in the comfort of your own home.
Secondly, if you have noticed a persistent change in bowel habit, especially blood in your stool, unexplained weight loss or severe pain, see your GP, and do not let them tell you that you're too young to have bowel cancer. Be proactive with your health and demand a blood test and a colonoscopy.
Lastly, don't be embarrassed to talk about it. The more we talk, the less there is to be embarrassed about. So don't be a fool, and test your stool!
Sherie Hagger has stage 3 bowel cancer. She is currently recovering from surgery to remove the second tumour and battling an infection from the surgery, which occurred in November. She will need to be monitored for life with CT scans every six months and colonoscopies every year. Follow her story on her blog Butt Why Sherie? or on Facebook.