Russell's bowel cancer story (diagnosed age 72, NSW)

Let me introduce you to an insidious silent killer.

My name is Russ and I have been a Rotarian for 42 years.  It was 1996 when I was asked to take on the role of District Chairman for Rotary Bowelscan, a project designed to raise community awareness of bowel cancer and encourage early detection.  

With the participation of pharmacies around Australia, Rotary Bowelscan sells test kits designed to detect blood in the stool, which is one of the best early indicators of bowel cancer. 

I held the position of Chairman until 2006, dutifully taking the test regularly myself.  Although my results in 2005 were inconclusive, I wasn’t too worried – all the other tests had been clear and my bowel habits hadn’t changed.  But in November 2005, I started to bleed from the rectum whenever I passed a stool.  I thought it was probably haemorrhoids but went to see a gastroenterologist anyway, who ordered a colonoscopy when I told him the blood I had seen was bright red and sticky.

In January 2006 I was diagnosed with cancer in the sigmoid area of the colon.  Although the cancer was up to five years old and a ‘C’ on the ABCD scale of severity (with ‘D’ being the most severe), it didn’t bleed regularly so would not have been picked up by the regular Bowelscan tests.

The news shattered my usually peaceful life and led to a series of very serious operations that would see me going in and out of hospitals for several months.

An appointment with a colorectal surgeon was made for the following Thursday.  He told me that I needed major bowel surgery – and quickly.  And because I also suffer from acute angina, I would need the approval of a cardiologist to undergo the operation, so an appointment was made for an angiogram the following week.  The angiogram showed that I would need four cardiac bypasses before I could have the bowel surgery, and I was booked in at the same hospital for the following Thursday.  The bypass operation was a success and I went home 10 days after surgery, but was readmitted just two days later because of complications.

Eventually, I was well enough to undergo a Sigmoid Colectomy in May 2006, in which 15 inches of bowel and a lymph node were removed.  Pathology on the node showed it to be malignant, making it highly likely that the cancer had spread elsewhere in my body, which meant 30 weeks of weekly chemotherapy.

The nurses in the chemo lab were true angels.  I was lucky and didn’t suffer too many side effects from the chemo, but I would have preferred not to have had it all the same. But I did, and now I only see my oncologist once a year and my surgeon every six months.  My blood counts are excellent and my general health – for a 72 year old – is considered to be OK.

The biggest piece of advice I’d like to share is this: maintain a positive mental attitude.  I was in hospital nine times in 2006, but I am a survivor and I have beaten ‘the Big C’.  I now live a full life and enjoy spending time with my grandchild when I have the chance, and I’m still actively involved in Rotary and its Bowelscan program.

Please take the Bowelscan test every year to avoid suffering this dreadful disease – if not for yourself, then for your family.  It’s still one of the best ways of detecting bowel cancer early, even if mine was an exceptional case.  Bowel cancer kills more Australians every year than our combined national road toll and is the second highest cause of cancer-related deaths, while being the most easily treated if caught early.

So my advice to you men out there is this: get off your bum and buy a kit.  The life you save will be your own.

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