Te Atatu fisherman Lenny Rameka tells customers on his chartered fishing boat they have another thing to target apart from snapper – early detection of cancer, before it kills them.
He should know. Rameka was one of hundreds of people whose bowel cancer (which had given him no sign it was there) was detected early by a free test in the last two years – and which, left unchecked, may well have killed him.
Since then, he has been encouraging his whānau and those who charter his fishing boat to get screened.
Rameka was a recipient of the free bowel cancer screening test, sent out to 60-74-year-olds. Bowel screening is currently available for Waitematā and Counties Manukau DHB areas and will soon be available for those in Auckland DHB, among others, as it is rolled out nationally. All tests and treatment under the programme are free for eligible participants (people aged 60- 74 eligible to receive public healthcare).
It took Rameka four days after the test kit arrived in the mail before he got around to doing it – but he was glad he did: "Bowel screening is not that scary. When I talk to guys on the boat, I tell them you don't know what's going on inside of you till you get checked out. It's not that big a deal – just do it and get checked out."
Clinical Lead for the Counties Manukau Health Bowel Screening Programme, Dr Adele Melton says those diagnosed early have a 90 per cent chance of survival: "So please encourage relatives of screening age to do the test. It's important to talk about doing the test with whānau to normalise the conversation on bowel screening and early detection.
"If you or a family member have received a test kit, please do the test and send it back promptly. You can also drop your kit at a Labtests centre in the Counties Manukau or Waitematā areas. If you haven't received a test kit or need another, please phone 0800 924 432 to request one.
Melton says 3000 New Zealanders are diagnosed with bowel cancer every year but most people don't realise screening can be done at home, in five minutes. In the last two years, over 200 cancers were detected by Waitematā and Counties Manukau DHBs through the programme – some of whom had no idea anything was wrong until they did the test.
Like Frances Stubbs. Imagine her surprise when the 73-year-old discovered she had cancer after doing the bowel screening test that came in the mail.
"I did the test and sent it back. The doctor phoned me and said they found some blood. It was a surprise to me because I had no symptoms. From there I had a colonoscopy."
After MRI and CT scans, the doctors decided the best thing to do was to remove the tumour: "From there I had the operation and two days later I was home. I was fortunate that they could do it laparoscopically which is probably why I was out so quickly."
"The process was explained in full - all the ramifications, the ins and out, as well as the worst case scenarios," she says. "The cancer nurses would phone me up to see if I had any problems or needed any help. I had my operation at the Manukau SuperClinic – convenient for me and the staff couldn't have been better. They're a great team; they were brilliant."
New Zealand has one of the highest rates of bowel cancer in the world. It kills as many people as breast cancer and prostate cancer combined – with 3000 diagnosed every year and 1200 deaths. It is more common in those over 60 and in men more than women.
That particular statistic didn't apply to Frances: "It was more of shock for my family than it was for me. If you've done the test and the doctor phones you up, then you are half prepared. You expect the worst and hope for the best.
"I've had no problems whatsoever [after the operation]. I'm one of the fortunate ones because it was caught early. If you're like me, you're asymptomatic, by the time I'd shown any symptoms, it might have been too late. You just don't know," she says.
Common bowel cancer symptoms may include:
- A change to your normal pattern of going to the toilet that continues for several weeks.
- Blood in your bowel motion (poo).
Although these symptoms are usually caused by other conditions, it's important to get them checked by your doctor. Deterioration of bowel health and bowel cancer is not a necessary part of aging. You can reduce the risk of developing bowel cancer by having a healthy diet high in fruit, vegetables and fibre, regular exercise and by not smoking.
People don't need to register for the free screening; they will be offered the opportunity to participate in the programme. However, people aged 60–74 are encouraged to ensure their contact details are up to date with their family doctor.
For more information about the programme, please visit www.timetoscreen.nz, or call 0800 924 432, or talk to your family doctor.