The importance of understanding that bowel cancer affects all ages

by Sarah Catherall / 01 April, 2018
Stefan Corbett. Photo/Hagen Hopkins

Stefan Corbett. Photo/Hagen Hopkins

RelatedArticlesModule - Bowel cancer diagnosis

As Stefan Corbett's story shows, lack of awareness that bowel cancer can afflict all ages means it is often misdiagnosed.

Stefan Corbett considers himself a lucky man. The public servant acted on his wife’s hunch and was privately screened for bowel cancer. Sitting in a Wellington cafe, the father of two strokes his goatee beard and orders a Diet Coke. For a cancer survivor, he’s young – 48 at his last birthday.

Three years ago, Corbett found blood in his stool. Fit and healthy, he had never been to hospital. A keen golfer, he thought he was bulletproof.

His wife, Sarah, pressed him to visit his GP, who suspected an infection, as Corbett frequently travelled to Asia for work. Four months later, when he was still noticing blood, a second GP diagnosed piles, sending him away with haemorrhoid cream. It took a visit to a third GP a few months later for the suggestion of a colonoscopy to come up.

But Corbett’s symptoms weren’t serious enough to warrant a publicly funded procedure, so he would have to go private: he handed over his $3000 and prepared for the examination.

“The surgeon, John Keating, put a scope up, and he said, ‘Oh, you’ve got a great big cancer. I can see it.’’’

“It was a big shock.’’

Stefan Corbett with daughter Gabrielle and wife Sarah. Photo/Hagen Hopkins

Stefan Corbett with daughter Gabrielle and wife Sarah. Photo/Hagen Hopkins

“He said, ‘It’s nearly blocking your bowel. It’s probably been growing for years.’’’

Further tests revealed that the tumour was very close to breaking through the bowel wall. “It was all ready to go. The surgeon said, ‘We’ve got to get it out fast.’’’

Two weeks later, in April 2016, Corbett was on the operating table. The surgeon removed a 6cm-wide, doughnut-shaped tumour that he estimated had been growing for four years. The ideal time to catch a bowel cancer tumour is at stage one, but Corbett’s had grown to stage three.

Corbett took three weeks off work to recover from the operation to remove a section of his ileum and get used to his ileostomy bag, before starting chemotherapy. The drugs caused nerve damage in his hands. “It was terrible. I spent three days in bed after every round. It was awful.’’

A year later, he had further bowel surgery to reconnect his intestine. But the procedure failed and he woke up five days later in intensive care after being operated on again.

“They were vacuuming stuff out. I had drains and tubes coming out of me. I had another scar – they had opened me up three times now. I was a mess.’’

Corbett. Photo/Hagen Hopkins

A few months later, his surgeon made another attempt to rejoin his bowel. This time it was a success.

“It’s been an absolute roller coaster for 18 months, my family not knowing what’s going on.’’

For the next two years, Corbett has a high chance the cancer will return. After five years, he will be given the all-clear.

Does he worry? “No, I just get on with it. But the chance is there. I’m just celebrating that I’m cancer-free. I’m getting on with my life.’’

Corbett has put his experience to good use and is on the board of patient volunteer group Bowel Cancer New Zealand. He tells people that bowel cancer can strike at any age.

“I meet young people, people in their twenties, healthy women, ex-professional athletes [who are diagnosed with the disease]. They’re middle class, upper class, working class.’’

He is keen for GPs – and men – to get the message. “Men tend not to go to the doctor, and they particularly don’t want a digital rectal examination. They shy away from that stuff.

“The worst situation is one that many people find themselves in: when a tumour blocks their bowel and they get extreme symptoms. The bowel is obstructed and you have faecal vomiting.

“If you have a planned surgical intervention, it’s done by a colorectal surgeon, rather than a general surgeon who happens to be working on the day. A lot of [acute-admission] operations end up with people having a permanent colostomy bag.

“Breast cancer is well advertised and warnings are issued regularly. But bowel cancer is insidious and under the radar.’’

This article was first published in the March 17, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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