An international study has revealed an increasing number of young New Zealanders are getting bowel cancer - and it's part of a "worrying worldwide trend".

Cancer Society of New Zealand medical director and oncologist Chris Jackson, a co-author of the research, said this was a "real issue" that needed urgent attention.

"It shows we are likely to see an increase in the number of people likely to have bowel cancer in the future and that's a major concern," Jackson told the Herald.

He said there was a lot unknown about the reasons for the increase and more research was needed to answer this.

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The findings come as a Herald investigation last week revealed:

• GPs telling patients, who are presenting with serious symptoms and a family history of bowel cancer, that they are too young to have the disease.

• More than $15 million of taxpayer money being paid to cancer patients who have been misdiagnosed or not diagnosed quickly enough.

• Thousands of New Zealanders being told they have cancer after being rushed to an emergency department when it's often too late to start treatment.

• Health advocates calling on GPs to get more training to better detect cancer.

• Extreme shortages in the number of specialists available in New Zealand to properly detect bowel cancer.

The study, led by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), found that between January 1995 and December 2014 rates of bowel cancer in people younger than 50 years old had increased by 4 per cent in seven high-income countries including New Zealand.

This was despite the overall rate of people getting bowel cancer dropping.

The latest data showed the number of New Zealanders under the age of 50 getting bowel cancer had risen by three per cent over the 10-year time period.

Cancer Society of New Zealand's medical director and Southern DHB oncologist Chris Jackson says this a real issue that needs addressing. Photo / File
Cancer Society of New Zealand's medical director and Southern DHB oncologist Chris Jackson says this a real issue that needs addressing. Photo / File

Jackson said this was worrying given this age bracket was not included in the National Bowel Screening Programme currently being rolled out in New Zealand.

"It means young people have to be really aware of their symptoms."

At the moment, only people aged 60 to 74 have access to bowel cancer screening, and even then it depends on where you live because not all DHBs have started this.

Health Minister David Clark said full implementation of the NBSP is expected to be completed by June 2021.

Clark said he had not seen the report and could not comment until he had seen it.

Meanwhile, Jackson said young people should not be dismissed of the possibility of having bowel cancer.

"Particularly as these young people age, their chances of bowel cancer are just going to get higher."

Bowel Cancer NZ spokeswoman Mary Bradley, a cancer survivor, echoed Jackson's comments, saying obviously this study illustrates just how important it is for GPs to take young people seriously.

Mary Bradley is spokeswoman for Bowel Cancer New Zealand. Photo / supplied
Mary Bradley is spokeswoman for Bowel Cancer New Zealand. Photo / supplied

"GPs shouldn't just assume bowel cancer is an old people's disease like previously thought. Clearly we can see it's just as important to check young people, especially when they have a family history," Bradley said.

Likewise it was just as important for patients to be aware that bowel cancer does not discriminate by age - being young doesn't rule out your chances of getting the disease, Bradley said.

"People need to be proactive in getting checked if they think there is something wrong and always get a second opinion."

The Cancer Society supported lowering the age of bowel cancer screening to at least 50 years old but says the resources and specialists to do the screening are needed to support the demand.

Sheryl's story:

Getting bowel cancer at the age of 28 was completely unexpected for Sheryl McGiffert.

Especially after being told by her doctor she was too young to get the deadly disease.

Despite having a family history of bowel cancer on both sides of her family, the Rangiora woman suffered 12 months in agony before the pain became so bad she could barely walk and was rushed to hospital.

It was there, in January 2017, she was diagnosed with stage four bowel cancer and was given less than five years to live.

"Up until that point it hadn't really sunk in. I looked at my family and saw tears coming out of my dad's eyes. I hadn't seen him cry before and it all just hit me and I bawled my eyes out."

Before then, she had been presenting to her GP time and time again complaining of abdominal pain and problems going to the toilet. Her doctor thought it might have a gluten or dairy intolerance so she cut that out of her diet but still problems persisted.

"I hadn't had any health problems before and at that time I was on a real health kick, excising heaps and eating well."

Sheryl McGiffert, 31, getting chemotherapy after being diagnosed with stage four bowel cancer. Photo / Supplied
Sheryl McGiffert, 31, getting chemotherapy after being diagnosed with stage four bowel cancer. Photo / Supplied

She says she got to the point where she started thinking it was in her head.

"When you are told there's nothing wrong with you so many times you do start to think it's not real."

She said her mum was even begging for a colonoscopy to see if it was bowel cancer but the doctor said she was too young.

The message she gave to people was to know your own body and take your symptoms seriously.

"If you think something is wrong, pursue it. Don't take the 'she'll be right' attitude. Visit a doctor and get a second opinion."

Sheryl with her dad Gavin, mum Lola, brother Vaughan, his wife Gabrielle and other brother Brad. Photo / Supplied
Sheryl with her dad Gavin, mum Lola, brother Vaughan, his wife Gabrielle and other brother Brad. Photo / Supplied

McGiffert said it also was so important for GPs to take their patients seriously and to know what to look for.

"If you leave it too long, people can die."

For the now 31-year-old it's a waiting game. She doesn't know how long she has left but continues to fight and make the most of the time she has left.