For GPs

Don’t Wait To Treat Bowel Cancer

07 Feb 2018

The ‘Don’t Wait Until It’s Too Late’ is a campaign running during February by Bowel Cancer Australia aiming to raise awareness of these types of cancer.

It is estimated that colorectal cancer – also known as bowel cancer – would become the second most commonly diagnosed cancer in Australia by the end of 2018, with about 17,000 new cases expected to be diagnosed during the year.

Radiation therapy can play a crucial role in treating bowel cancer along with many other treatments. Western Sydney patient Neil Williams (63), a married father-of-two who also has a grandchild, has been undergoing radiation therapy treatment for rectal cancer. Here he shares his experiences of his treatment with Targeting Cancer and how he has benefited from radiation therapy:

“I’d had a wonderful twelve months. I had been overseas twice – to the Philippines and Poland – for family occasions. I had been happily married for almost 40 years, was a keen cyclist so was keeping active and generally everything was well. “I had seen blood with my stools and got it checked out, but was told that it was just fissures and nothing much to worry about.  I had just turned 60 and I thought it was something to do with my ‘stage of life’.

“Because I had been told it was a fissure, I didn’t bother with taking the national bowel screening test as I thought it was pointless. “As time progressed, though, I noticed other things happening. As well as blood with my stools, the size and shape of the stools also changed and I was going to the toilet but not feeling ‘satisfied’. I was referred to a gastroenterologist and had a colonoscopy, which showed I had rectal cancer.

“To be honest, I had tried to prepare myself for bad news so the news wasn’t a total shock.  I can remember seeing a poster on a waiting room wall with a checklist of symptoms and thinking, ‘yep – I’ve got those’.

“I was told that I had quite a nasty tumour and there was cancer in some of the surrounding lymph nodes. I needed a combination chemotherapy and radiation therapy followed by surgery to treat the cancer. My treatment started midway through 2017.

Neil Williams, pictured here with grandson Jude, is proof of how radiation therapy can benefit patients with bowel and other cancers.

“I knew almost nothing about radiation therapy before I started my treatment at Blacktown Hospital. It was quite daunting seeing the machines for the first time, but all the staff were wonderful. They made me feel comfortable, which helped enormously.

“It was quite scary as I didn’t know what to expect. The machines look scary, but you also have the fascination aspect – ‘how does it work?’

“You got on the table and then waited for the crosshairs of the laser to match up with the area of your body it was targeting.  The treatment only took about two-and-a-half minutes and I was only in the room for about ten minutes overall, including the time it took me to prepare.

“There were 25 treatments, spread out over a six-week period. I had primed myself for pain during the radiation treatment, but it didn’t hurt at all.  There were some side-effects mid-treatment – nothing too bad, but I started having irritable bladder and bladder symptoms. Bowel movements and urination became sensitive. There was also a tenderness and some reddening of a small section of skin that was directly exposed to the radiation. The day after my treatment finished I was also very sick, but that thankfully quickly stopped.

For more about symptoms, treatment and causes of colorectal cancer, click here.

“As well as my chemotherapy and radiation therapy, I’ve had what’s called laparoscopic surgery to get rid of the last of the tumour and have now started another course of chemotherapy for a few months. This will be followed by surgery to reverse the ileostomy (bowel bag) required for this procedure.

“I think being fit and active – even though it didn’t stop me getting cancer – has helped me handle the treatment. I’ve also had wonderful support of those around me, especially my wife.

“When I did have moments of sadness I would talk to my wife or say a prayer, which always helped. My faith has been very important to me throughout this period.

“I just always wanted to avoid getting depressed and I think having that positive outlook helps. I’ve tried to never think, ‘why me?’ – what’s the point? You just need to accept your fate and deal with it.

“Being confronted by cancer makes you look at life in different ways. It has changed my life by making me appreciate all the good things I have. I also felt glad that at least I had been able to enjoy those wonderful times with my loved ones before discovering I had cancer.

“I had friends who were shocked by my illness. They said they had been putting off the bowel screening test but were going to do it straight away.  I know of someone who had a positive test result and then had suspect polyps removed before any could turn cancerous. If what I’ve been through can help raise awareness and help others, that’s a good thing.”

For more on bowel cancer and the Don’t Wait Until It’s Too Late campaign, click here.

For more statistics on bowel cancer, symptoms and treatments, click here.

For more on how radiation therapy can help treat bowel and many other cancers, click here.