Whanganui's Esther Tinirau (Ngāti Ruaka) was just 51 when she was diagnosed with bowel cancer.

Her journey began months before her diagnosis as she found herself visiting her GP on and off for 18 months with bleeding from the bowel.

Stool samples were taken but they came back negative and her GP advised her it must just be haemorrhoids.

She persisted and lined up for a half-colonoscopy but that came back negative too.


Then in January 2016, while at work, Tinirau experienced a large bleed and was finally booked in for a non-urgent full colonoscopy.

She was about to begin a new role as national director at the Te Kōhanga Reo Trust in July 2016, moving on from her role as a te reo Māori educator and senior management positions in iwi organisations and the Ministry of Education.

Just before she was due to start, she was called in to have the colonoscopy that immediately confirmed she had stage three rectal cancer.

"I thought 'gee, I'm just too young to have this', both parents had died in their 70s, yet here I was. I did have three aunties die of stomach cancer, but did think 'why me and why now?'"

However, she decided to remain positive.

"I didn't once ask how long have I got left, I just went, ok, let's go, let's fight this, what do I need to do."

It took her some time to tell her wider whānau and she battled with her thoughts.

"I was in the prime of my life, the prime of my career, I felt I had so much more to contribute, so much more to give."

Esther Tinirau with her partner Mike Neho. Photo / Supplied
Esther Tinirau with her partner Mike Neho. Photo / Supplied

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Her radiation therapy journey took six weeks followed by six weeks of chemotherapy before surgery to cut out the growth.

Two months later she was on a round of intravenous chemotherapy that she described as "brutal".

"I could only finish half the six sessions as I reacted so badly to it and just couldn't cope with the side effects."

Eventually, she was well enough to return to work but the blood tumour markers started to rise again and by January 2018 the cancer had returned.

"By this time the doctors were talking about controlling it, not curing it."


Tinirau is about to start another round of intravenous chemotherapy and it is the last chance to extend her life.

"Despite not having such a good experience last time with chemo I'm trying to approach this round with a different mindset.

"While myself and my whānau are trying to remain positive, we have our days of being sad and scared about what the future holds."

She draws strength and inspiration from her wider whānau and Whanganui tribal maxim "the river flows from the mountain to the sea, I am the river, the river is me".

"I'm calling on that now, calling on my own physical strength, my spirituality to protect and guide me, my whānau to support me and my mental resilience to urge me forward with what's ahead."

Alongside fighting her own battle, she stands as an advocate for other Māori who have not had the opportunity to be screened for the cancer and are losing their lives.


She is one of many New Zealanders supporting Bowel Cancer New Zealand's call to the Government today to screen Māori for the disease from age 50.

"We desperately need this to happen, we are talking about losing generations who are too young and have too much to contribute to the future of this country and to their whānau and iwi."

Around 12 per cent of New Zealanders aged 50-59 are diagnosed with bowel cancer every year so Bowel Cancer NZ is calling for screening by 2025 for all New Zealanders in their 50s and immediately for Māori in this age group.

Wheturangi Walsh-Tapiata (left), Keria Ponga and Nancy Tuaine have supported Esther Tinirau (front) throughout her journey. Photo / Bevan Conley
Wheturangi Walsh-Tapiata (left), Keria Ponga and Nancy Tuaine have supported Esther Tinirau (front) throughout her journey. Photo / Bevan Conley

Around 22 per cent of Māori diagnosed with bowel cancer are in their 50s compared to 12 per cent for New Zealanders overall.