Bowel Cancer – being told you have the unsexy cancer

Before I became a bowel cancer patient, I would not have believed that there was such a thing as an “unsexy” cancer. This is the difference between me as the clinician who believed wholeheartedly that she was an empathetic and insightful caregiver who understood the patient’s journey well – and the clinician who has now experienced her own bowel cancer diagnosis.

I hear about the notion of bowel cancer being the “unsexy” cancer from younger adults struggling to access the right support to manage their ongoing symptoms, from health professionals frustrated with inequities in public health funding, from heads of large corporations, and from marketers and advertisers. And, to put it politely, I’m over it.

So why is bowel cancer the “unsexy” cancer?

  • Lets face it, in Australia, culturally we don’t like talking about our bowels and bowel function. This means that patients can delay seeking medical care for their symptoms. A delay to medical care can equal a delay to a timely bowel cancer diagnosis and curative bowel cancer treatment.
  • Because we don’t talk about our bowels – bowel cancer, rectal cancer and anal cancer can be challenging for patients to talk about with their health providers and loved ones. This can lead to ongoing unmanaged symptoms and bowel cancer treatment side-effects.
  • Some patients report feeling a stigma or shame around their bowel cancer because it involves talking about bowel habits, bowel function, and at times incontinence.

Why is this so important?

  • Health conditions that are “unsexy”, difficult to talk about, or are associated with shame and stigma are often not appealing for public discussions, public health campaigns, or the media.
  • If we don’t feel comfortable talking about bowel cancer, it is difficult for bowel cancer patients to share their story and raise public awareness about the condition. On more than one occasion I have been politely declined interview opportunities with a gentle “We agree that bowel cancer is an important topic for Australians, it’s just not quite right for our audience”. When considering the bowel cancer statistics, I am sure that the 15,610 Australians newly diagnosed each year and the 150,000 Australians living with the condition would agree that bowel cancer is a topic that deserves publicity.
  • If we don’t raise public awareness about the condition- younger people won’t be aware of the signs and symptoms and won’t seek early medical attention. This can lead to delays in diagnosis and poor health outcomes. Bowel cancer has a > 90% cure rate if treated early.  Over 90%!
  • Because of the lack of public awareness, I often hear from younger people who tell me that they always thought that bowel cancer was “an old person’s disease”. This is delaying diagnosis and life-saving cancer treatment. In Australia, bowel cancer is the deadliest cancer for young people aged 25-44 years.
  • Public awareness and campaigning are linked to the supply of funding for public health education, advertising campaigns, screening, treatment, and access to cancer care services. Australia’s bowel cancer community deserves equal access to preventative care and treatment, in line with other common cancers in Australia.

What can you do?

  • Start a conversation today. As a society, take steps to normalise conversations about bowel health, signs and symptoms of the disease, and the bowel cancer statistics.
  • Encourage your friends, family and colleagues to speak to their GP about any bowel cancer symptoms including a recent change in bowel habit, change in stool appearance, blood in the stool, frequent cramping, unexplained low red blood cell count, abnormal lumps, abdominal pain or cramping.
  • Promote the Australian bowel cancer statistics:
    – Bowel cancer is the second deadliest cancer in Australia (behind lung)
    – Bowel cancer is the leading cancer killer in Australian’s 25-44years.
  • Shine a light on the need for equity in funding for all cancers, – based on patient care needs.
  • June is Australia’s bowel cancer awareness month. Consider raising awareness in your community or at work. You can even host your own fundraising event.

Change is possible

To those who tell me that we have to wait for someone of public National importance to have their own diagnosis of bowel cancer before we see change,.. I say – Australians deserve better now. For those who argue that bowel cancer is not a political priority because it isn’t a gender-based cancer, I say don’t wait for someone close to you to be impacted by bowel cancer before you advocate for change and further bowel cancer research. Focus on Australia’s bowel cancer statistics today.

To those who tell me that we won’t have a National sporting day to raise much-needed funding for bowel cancer research, treatment and survivorship services – I say, well, why not? Our bowel cancer community already have a number of great slogans ready! “Get your butt into gear” is one of my favourites!

The statistics on bowel cancer prevalence tell their own story– if we had a system where funding was linked to the burden of disease, more funding would be allocated to the prevention, treatment and ongoing management of Bowel Cancer.

Change is possible. Change is necessary for the future health of our Australians. Lets start a wider conversation today!

I hope that you enjoyed this article. Please drop us a comment below, we would love to hear from you.

The Awakened Mumma, Author of ‘A Woman’s Guide to Navigating the Invisible Cancer Load

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