Patient-led cancer fight

Beat Bowel Cancer Aotearoa chairwoman Dr Sarah Derrett and one of the organisation's medical...
Beat Bowel Cancer Aotearoa chairwoman Dr Sarah Derrett and one of the organisation's medical advisers, oncologist Dr Chris Jackson, discuss the need for increased awareness of bowel cancer. Photo by Craig Baxter.
If a Boeing 737 bound from Dunedin for Wellington crashed every six weeks killing all the occupants, people would be outraged.

However, bowel cancer in New Zealand kills that many people and it is barely mentioned, chairwoman of Beat Bowel Cancer Aotearoa Dr Sarah Derrett, of Dunedin, says.

Or put another way, people were rightly worried about the road toll when it reached 10 deaths on a holiday weekend, but there is not similar concern when bowel cancer kills 10 people every three days throughout the year.

That complacency and ignorance is something the new organisation, which was officially launched at Parliament on Wednesday, is determined to address.

It is being led by a group of bowel cancer patients and their families from around the country, with support from clinicians including Dunedin oncologists Associate Prof David Perez and Dr Chris Jackson, who saw the need for a patient-led organisation to raise awareness of the disease.

The group, which became a registered charity last November, is committed to reducing the impact of bowel cancer on the community, through awareness, education and support.

Dr Derrett said the first priority of the new organisation was raising awareness, particularly of the symptoms of the disease, so that people went to their doctors early.

The symptoms (see fact box) were not "particularly glamorous", but people needed to get over their reluctance to talk about them.

They needed to realise it was the most common cancer in New Zealand and the second-biggest killer, with 1200 to 1300 people dying every year.

Their message, however, was one of hope. More than 70% of cancers could be completely cured if caught and treated early enough.

Dr Derrett's bowel cancer diagnosis came in 2004 when she was 39 and working in the United Kingdom. It followed one rectal haemorrhage.

Dr Derrett, who is a health researcher, said she did not immediately think of her symptoms being suggestive of bowel cancer.

It was easy for people to believe that it was a cancer which only affected the elderly.

Her general practitioner referred her immediately to the UK gastroenterology service and she was seen within two weeks, but it was not until three months later her cancer was discovered through a colonoscopy.

It had spread from her bowel into some lymph nodes and after surgery she had six months of chemotherapy treatment.

Dr Jackson said New Zealanders were often stoic, but they should not ignore ongoing symptoms - the effects of "the dodgy curry which has now lasted for three months".

A lot of men only sought treatment because of concerns raised by family members.

While there had been advances in overall survival rates in the past decade, including for those patients where the disease had spread to other parts of the body, the earlier the disease was detected the better.

About 20% of bowel cancer which had spread to other organs was now potentially curable - "that's not the case for any other stage four cancer".

Dr Jackson said New Zealand was lagging behind other countries such as Australia by still not having a screening programme and because of its slowness to fund new and effective drug therapies, he said.

The group will be pushing for the speeding up of decision-making regarding introduction of a national screening programme.

At this stage, the Government has announced a four-year pilot programme, which is expected to begin next year.

Dr Derrett said in the time before a decision on a national programme was made, more than 1000 lives which might have been saved by a programme would be lost (based on the Government estimates of lives screening might save).

There needed to be equal access to colonoscopy services across the country and more work had to be done to increase the number of endoscopists in readiness for a future screening programme.

It was demoralising to think that people were much more likely to survive the disease in Australia than in New Zealand.

Australia has a screening programme and also offers more chemotherapy treatments than New Zealand.

Bowel cancer symptoms include:
1. Bleeding from the bottom (rectal bleeding) without any obvious reason. Or if you have other symptoms such as straining, soreness, lumps and itchiness.
2. A persistent change in bowel habit - going to the toilet more often or experiencing looser stools for several weeks.
3. Abdominal pain, especially if severe.
4. Any lumps or mass in your tummy.
5. Weight loss and tiredness (a symptom of anaemia).
- See your family doctor if you are at all concerned.

Reduce your risk of bowel cancer (or of the disease returning):
- Do not smoke.
- Eat a diet rich in fruit and vegetables and low in fat.
- Exercise daily.
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- Keep alcohol consumption low.


Anyone wishing to know more about Beat Bowel Cancer Aotearoa, or wishing to make a donation, can visit its website or email


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