I woke up on a Friday early in December feeling a little dreamy and only just in touch with reality. A hint of classical music danced at the edges. Very comfy. Writer David Sedaris calls it his happy place: the twilight drugs he remembered from his first colonoscopy. I was there now.
While my colleagues in print and broadcasting were heading to Brisbane for the 2016 Walkley Awards – journalism’s night of nights that I had co-hosted for a decade – I was coming round from what I thought was a routine peep into the depths of my bowels.
The gastro-enterologist said later he’d found some polyps in my colon and had given them the snip. This in itself was nothing unusual. Let’s keep an eye on them, he added, and we’ll see you in a year\'s time.
Only, that’s what I was anticipating he was going to say. What he actually said was, “We also found a large tumour.” I’m grateful now that I was still in that happy place, because my response was pretty bland. Or perhaps I had just not thought about it enough to panic. What do we need to do next, I asked.
A blur of tests followed – X-rays, CT scan, MRI – culminating in a positive diagnosis.
Me? The one who’d given up eating meat more than three decades before, who’d never been a smoker and no more than a glass-with-dinner kind of drinker. The one who ran marathons and whose greatest joy was chasing a ball around a tennis court for hours, who did yoga and had no family history of bowel cancer. And yet, there it was, plain to see. Luck of the draw.
As we left the consulting room and walked back towards the hospital reception I broke down, engulfed in a spasm of loud sobbing. It had all become too much. Out of control. Unpredictable. Scary.
I won’t burden you with the minutiae of my adventure in the cancer universe, except for this seminal moment. My partner, Roger, and I had just been to see the consultant surgeon at Prince of Wales hospital and he’d sketched for us what we could hope for from the surgery. I had sat there blank-faced but inwardly agonising, because what he said was horrifying to me. Let’s just say it involved significant sacrifices to my quality of life.
As we left the consulting room and walked back towards the hospital reception I broke down, engulfed in a spasm of loud sobbing. It had all become too much. Out of control. Unpredictable. Scary. I wanted my health back. I stood there with my head on Roger’s shoulder in a state of the purest despair.
Now, as I venture into these uncharted waters hoping to emerge with at the very least dignity and a reasonable outlook for the future decades of my life, I’m more accepting. Going through radiation and chemotherapy – I was going to say braving my way through, but I don’t think I’m particularly brave – and then losing a key chunk of my bowel are going to have a fundamental impact on who I am and how I function as a human being. But you know what, I’m still standing.
I’ve been taking part in the national bowel cancer screening program since I turned 50. Yes, I know, the test is not elegant, but it’s no more inconvenient than cleaning up after a baby or even a pet. So I did it. I collected the stool samples and sent them off, hoping to hear nothing more, hoping to hide somewhere within the herd.
Now, aged 55, I find myself on the outer edge of that herd. As I write, we’re at the end of the radiation and chemo therapy part of the treatment. It’s been hard. Sitting on the loo has at times reduced me to tears because of the discomfort. I’d been warned. You can’t repeatedly zap such a sensitive part of the anatomy as the rectum without confronting side-effects.
Despite that, I’m one of the lucky ones. They discovered it early. And I have private health insurance to smooth the way. Others have no option but to be patient. The recommended maximum waiting period for a colonoscopy is thirty days. For some members of the public that has blown out to 120 days.
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And it’s a problem that’s not going away. On average, 41 Australians are diagnosed with bowel cancer every day. That’s a staggering number. Almost ten percent are younger than fifty. That ought to get your attention. Now do something about it. Have that chat with your GP even if it feels awkward. Don’t wait until it’s too late.
Around two thirds of eligible people choose not to complete the sample test in the bowel cancer screening program. Two out of three! It’s hard to believe people could be so cavalier about something so fundamental. Just do it. It could save your life. I reckon it saved mine.
Anton Enus is a presenter on SBS World News, and a Bowel Cancer Australia Ambassador. Bowel Cancer Australia is the nation’s leading community-funded charity, providing practical and emotional support for the growing number of Australian’s affected by bowel cancer. For more information, please visit bowelcanceraustralia.org or call the Helpline 1800 555 494. @AntonEnus
The statistics quoted come from bowelcanceraustralia.org: 14,962 Australians are diagnosed with bowel cancer each year, including 1,313 younger than 50.
The two out of three figure comes from an article in SMH 12 December 2016