My bowel cancer survival story: what Lou wants you to know
Tuesday 30 October 2018
When Lou and Mary Marks emigrated from the UK to Brisbane in 2000, they came for the renowned Queensland sunshine and relaxed lifestyle. What they didn’t know was that Australia’s National Bowel Cancer Screening Program would later save Lou’s life.
At age 50, Lou received his first bowel cancer screening kit in the mail. He collected his samples and received the all clear. Five years later, he received his second kit and completed it again.
This year, at age 58, Lou received his third kit. The package in the mail came as a surprise. “I was unaware the screening was so regular,” says Lou, “I expected the next one to be at 60.”
Having been away on an overseas holiday, the kit had been waiting for Lou for a few weeks, and he admits that he left it sit a little while longer.
“I left it a couple of weeks before I thought, ‘I’d better do this’,” says Lou.
It’s common for people to leave their kits. Only 40.4% of Queenslanders who are invited to participate in the program collect their samples and send their kits back. Completing his kit resulted in a whirlwind of lifesaving medical treatment for Lou, and he now urges all Queenslanders to complete and return their kits a soon as they get them.
A positive result
“I was in Sydney when the letter came through that said there was a positive sample,” says Lou. “Mary, my wife, opened the letter and called me. We made an appointment with the doctor straight away.”
A colonoscopy revealed Lou had three polyps in his bowel and that one was abnormally shaped. Because of its position and shape, it couldn’t be removed during the colonoscopy, and Lou was booked in to have a second colonoscopy EMR at the QE2 Endoscopy Unit for removal of the abnormal polyp. Unfortunately, due to the location and type of polyp, the doctor was unable to remove it.
“That’s when we knew it might be serious,” says Lou. “When the doctor told me that I needed to see a surgeon before the end of the week…it makes you think.”
Lou was sitting in the surgeon’s office discussing the possible diagnoses and treatment options when the call came through with the pathology results that confirmed he had cancer.
Lou recalls the moment clearly. “The surgeon took the call and hung up and said, ‘It’s definitely cancer, so that now rules out other treatment options.’”
“It was such a shock,” says Mary. “He had no symptoms at all; he wasn’t ill. He’d just been enjoying a holiday in Europe!”
The following Tuesday, seven weeks after he’d received his kit in the mail, Lou had surgery to remove 30 centimetres of his colon and 23 lymph nodes.
A fresh perspective
Lou is now in recovery, his surgery having successfully removed all of the cancer, which means he doesn’t require further chemotherapy or radiation treatment. Lou and Mary understand how lucky they are that Lou completed the kit that was sent to him as part of the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program.
“It puts things in perspective,” says Lou. “If I had not done that sample… if I was one of those people who said, ‘No, I’m not doing it’, well, things would be very different.”
“I’m now going around and telling all my friends, colleagues and other people I meet to just do it,” he says. “If it comes in the post, just do it straight away. It sounds horrible, but really, it’s just a little scoop and you’re done. And if there is something there, the earlier they catch it, the earlier the treatment can be implemented.”
Mary agrees. “It’s really just getting over the thought of it. And even if it comes back positive, it doesn’t mean there is cancer there.”
“I’m so lucky I’ve got Lou,” she says, “and it’s because he did the screen.”
Lou hopes that his story will encourage others to take up the invitation to complete the bowel cancer screening test and collect their samples as soon as the kit arrives in the mail.
“Without the screening program, I would not have known anything was different until it was too late.”
How can I participate in the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program?
Australia has one of the highest rates of bowel cancer in the world, with one in 23 Australians developing bowel cancer in their lifetime.
The National Bowel Cancer Screening Program aims to combat this by sending free bowel cancer screening kits to Australians aged 50 to 74. The program has been expanding and by 2020 all eligible people aged 50-74 years will be sent a kit to complete every two years. To complete the kit, people need to take samples from two different bowel movements and send them back in a prepaid envelope that comes with the kit. The samples then go to pathology, where they are analysed to detect tiny traces of blood, invisible to the naked eye. As Lou’s story shows, the bowel cancer screening is a free, simple test that could save your life.
Symptoms of bowel cancer
Bowel cancer can develop without any early warning signs, which is why it is so important to participate in the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program. However, if you experience any of the following symptoms at any time, see your doctor without delay:
- bleeding from the rectum (back passage), or any sign of blood after a bowel motion
- a change in bowel habit (looser bowel motions, severe constipation and/or needing to go to the toilet more than usual)
- unexplained tiredness
- abdominal pain.
Many thanks to Lou and Mary Marks for sharing their story with us.