While some people prefer to live a life free of all regrets, others embrace mistakes as the opportunities needed to change the course of their life.
Chinese-born Lin* is one of these people. The 53-year-old has lived a life full of meaning and memories but she has two major health regrets.
One decade ago, a 40-something-year-old Lin ignored medical advice to undergo an endoscopy procedure after she experienced severe gastro pain.
“I remember thinking ‘yuck: an endoscopy’,” she explains. “So I didn’t take the test.
“But If I could go back 10 years and remake my decision about that endoscopy again, I would. If I had taken the test, they probably would have found and removed the polyp that later grew into bowel cancer.”
Life moved on and Lin continued along for the next seven years as usual, before a second opportunity to save her health arrived in her mailbox.
At age 50, she received a free bowel cancer screening kit - the faecal immunochemical test – courtesy of the federal government. “I ignored it and didn’t do the test. I was so physically well! I went jogging three times a week. I slept okay. I never smoked or drank. So I thought that I was at the top of my health.
I ignored it and didn’t do the test. I was so physically well! I went jogging three times a week. I slept okay. I never smoked or drank. So I thought that I was at the top of my health.
“But a few months later, I found out that one of my friends, who was only 30-something, was diagnosed with stage three bowel cancer. I was very shocked as she was healthy. That made me more conscious about screening.”
Finally, at age 51, Lin did the test. It came back positive, confirming that traces of blood had been found in her stool sample. She was advised to have a colonoscopy and this time, she followed through.
“The results that came back said I had bowel cancer. It wasn’t spreading and it was still localised, so I was lucky in that sense. But the polyp they found was still quite big so they classified my cancer as stage 2B.”
Lin underwent surgery the next week and the poly was removed.
Two years have passed since her operation and Lin is currently cancer-free. But, upon reflection, so much has changed. “I used to think I was so healthy yet I still got cancer. So the diagnosis has put a lot of fear in my mind. I don’t know when the cancer will come back or if it will come back.”
Her belief that bowel cancer is an older man’s disease has also been reinformed.
“At that time, I was very ignorant about bowel cancer. Before I had it, I thought men always had more bowel cancer than women do. I thought it was something to worry about after I reached 55. But after I did a lot of research, I realised the percentage of bowel cancer in men and women were almost the equal.”
Bowel Cancer Australia’s national community engagement manager, Claire Annear explains that bowel cancer can hit anyone at any age of any gender.
“It’s definitely a commonly held misconception that bowel cancer is an old man’s disease. It’s definitely not.”
Each year, 6,800 Aussie women are diagnosed with bowel cancer. Bowel Cancer Australia predicts that more than 20,000 women will die from the disease in the next decade, making it the third leading cause of female cancer deaths nationwide.
“For some reason, women don’t prioritise screening for bowel cancer like they do for some of the other cancers like breast and cervical. There is also a common female perception is faecal testing is embarrassing and ‘yucky’, and screening for the disease is messy.”
While it is true that disease prevalence rates are concentrated in the older populations, around eight per cent of all the women diagnosed with bowel cancer are under the age of 50.
“Bowel cancer affects both men and women of all ages and it’s something that everyone should have on their radar.”
Sydney-based colorectal surgeon, Dr Margaret Schnitzler, adds that awareness and early screening are key to survival.
Bowel Cancer Australia predicts that more than 20,000 women will die from the disease in the next decade.
“Around 90 per cent of bowel cancer cases can be successfully treated, if detected early,” says Dr Schnitzler.
Today, surgery success rates are high and bowel cancer screening can also detect pre-cancerous polyps. “So you can eliminate bowel cancer and remove polyps before they actually become cancerous…It just seems logical to do the test because it saves lives.
“If you have a family history of bowel cancer, it’s recommended you start screening at an earlier age, before 50.
“The rule of thumb is to get tested [when you’re] 10 years younger than the age your first affected close relative (parent or sibling) got bowel cancer, if they were diagnosed under age 55. If they were diagnosed over age 55 then they are considered an average risk.”
Looking back, Lin is grateful that she got a second chance at life. “I was lucky I was sent the bowel screening package otherwise I would never have known I had cancer,” Lin explains.
“Even if there is nothing wrong, everyone should go for the test as it provides peace of mind. If something is wrong, the test can tell you about it early. I got in early and found out. I was lucky.”
“The test is a one-off that you do once every few years so why not? It’s not ‘yucky’. It could save your life.”
*Name has been changed