Bowel cancer shock stories from asymptomatic western Sydney residents: early detection is key

Alison Bannister, clinical nurse consultant – gastroenterology conducting a patient assessment.

Bowel cancer is the second biggest cancer killer in NSW, but if detected early, can be successfully treated in more than 90 per cent of cases.

Ermington resident Suzanna* was diagnosed with bowel cancer earlier this year at the age of 72, and like many before her, was completely asymptomatic.

The National Bowel Cancer Screening Program test detected abnormalities, so Suzanna was referred to the Western Sydney Local Health District (WSLHD) Rapid Access Faecal Occult Blood Test (FOBT) Clinic at Westmead Hospital, where following a colonoscopy, bowel cancer was confirmed.

“I was shocked when my colonoscopy came up positive as I did not have any symptoms; no blood seen when I went to the toilet, and I did not feel anything unusual,” she said.

“I don’t have a family history of bowel cancer – the only medical issues I have are high blood pressure and I am a bit overweight.”

Suzanna’s story isn’t unusual as bowel cancer often develops without any symptoms, and the cancer can grow in the bowel for years before spreading to other parts of the body.

This is the first time Suzanna had participated in the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program which is free for Australians aged 50 to 74.

59-year-old Toongabbie resident Brett had completed his fifth National Bowel Cancer Screening Program test kit when he received a call from the WSLHD FOBT Clinic at Westmead Hospital.

“I have been doing the tests every two years since I turned 50, and they’ve always come back negative, so to receive a positive result was a bit of a shock,” said Brett.

“When they did my colonoscopy, they found and burnt off seven polyps which all were non-cancerous – but I have to keep doing the screenings and get another colonoscopy in three years.

“I didn’t have any symptoms and I don’t have a family history of bowel cancer, so it was a surprise.”

Brett explained that the colonoscopy was any easy morning procedure and commended the Auburn theatres on being “really good and professional”.

Polyps can change into cancerous tumours if not found and removed early, and people who have pre-cancerous polyps or are at the early stage of bowel cancer may not experience any symptoms.

“I have said to my friends, please, please have it (a screening) done – do not leave it until it’s too late… please,” Suzanna said.

“I know a few friends of mine who received the test kit and they just put it in the bin – don’t do this – just do the test!”

The FOBT Clinic is open to patients living in the WSLHD catchment areas served by Westmead Hospital, Auburn Hospital and Blacktown & Mount Druitt hospitals. Asymptomatic patients who have returned a positive FOBT are assessed at the FOBT Clinic by a specialty nurse. Visit the Clinic webpage for more information.

* Suzanna’s name has been changed for privacy reasons.

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