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“Had I listened to two GPs, I would not have had the colonoscopy”: Why This Aussie is Speaking Out About Bowel Cancer Awareness

Michal was diagnosed with bowel cancer at 57 years of age – but it was through her own advocation that she got her life-saving treatment. Here’s how her life turned upside down in a matter of days, how she responded and what she wants all of us to know about cancer. 

Former university professor Michal Schneider noticed just two drops of blood in her stool, prompting her to get checked out.

“I work in medical research including cancer imaging and hence, am very aware of symptoms that could be serious,” Michal says.

These were the only symptoms the 61-year-old had – and it’s what makes bowel cancer so deadly. Many people will have few symptoms, with some showing no symptoms until the disease has progressed. After all, if caught early enough, 99% of cases are treatable – that’s what makes Michal’s actions so pertinent.

“I insisted on a colonoscopy. The gastroenterologist very bluntly said afterwards that they found a tumour and that he would refer me to a surgeon asap,” she says. “It was all surreal and my partner was not with me.

“I had surgery 5 days later after undergoing a full body Ct scan which showed no spread. About 30 cm bowel and 40 lymph nodes were removed during surgery.”

Michal spent the next 4 days in hospital, awaiting results – for a change, it was good news.

“I was lucky - there was no spread and I did not need chemo,” she says. “My surgeon said that my tumour hardly bled and would probably not have been detected on a faecal occult stool test.

“Without the colonoscopy, I would not be here today.”

Michal’s experience prompted her to warn her family to get checked too – as we’re seeing a rise in cases among younger people, you’re never too young to have bowel cancer. 

While bowel cancer often occurs in those without a known history of the disease, genetics can play a role in your risk levels too. For instance, inherited genetic mutations are known to play a critical role in some cases, accounting for a small percentage of bowel cancer diagnoses. These genetic mutations can be passed down from one or both parents and increase the risk of developing the disease.

Hereditary Bowel Cancer Syndromes:

Several hereditary bowel cancer syndromes have been identified, which significantly raise the risk of developing colorectal cancer. The most well-known of these syndromes include:

  1. Lynch Syndrome (Hereditary Nonpolyposis Colorectal Cancer, HNPCC): Lynch syndrome is one of the most common hereditary forms of bowel cancer. It is caused by specific mutations in genes responsible for DNA repair, such as MLH1, MSH2, MSH6, and PMS2. Individuals with Lynch syndrome have a significantly increased risk of developing colorectal cancer and other cancers, such as endometrial cancer.
  2. Familial Adenomatous Polyposis (FAP): FAP is a rare genetic condition characterised by the development of numerous polyps in the colon and rectum. If left untreated, these polyps can lead to the development of bowel cancer. FAP is caused by mutations in the APC gene.
  3. MutYH-Associated Polyposis (MAP): MAP is another rare hereditary condition caused by mutations in the MUTYH gene. Similar to FAP, individuals with MAP are at an increased risk of developing multiple polyps and bowel cancer.

Knowing the genetic risk for bowel cancer can be crucial for early detection and preventive measures. Individuals with a family history of bowel cancer or known hereditary syndromes may benefit from regular screenings and surveillance to detect precancerous polyps or early-stage cancer. Early detection increases the chances of successful treatment and improved outcomes. Michal shows how effective early detection can be – for herself and her family. 

“My children have since all had colonoscopies and one of my kids had polyps at age 34. These could easily transform into cancer over time. I had no family history of bowel cancer, am active and am vegetarian, don’t drink alcohol and so was at very low risk,” Michal says. “I think awareness needs to be much higher as bowel cancer is curable if detected early. Education and awareness are not sufficiently high especially among the younger population.”

Michal says that while education is essential for the population, responses from doctors can also lead to delayed diagnosis. 

“I was lucky as I have private health insurance and excellent medical care. However, had I listened to two GPs, I would not have had the colonoscopy,” she says. “Hence, I think awareness needs to start with GPs and they need to push for appropriate diagnostic tests.”

So, what are the signs for bowel cancer? Let’s take a look at the most common red flags.

  • Changes in bowel habits: Diarrhoea, constipation, or a change in the consistency of stool that lasts for several weeks without an obvious cause.
  • Blood in stool: This indicates internal bleeding, specifically in the lower digestive tract. The blood may be bright red or even dark and tarry.
  • Abdominal pain: Unexplained abdominal pain or discomfort, including cramps, bloating, or persistent discomfort that does not go away with usual remedies.
  • Unexplained weight loss: Significant and unexplained weight loss without an apparent cause is another common symptom of the disease. It may be accompanied by loss of appetite and fatigue.
  • Anaemia: Iron-deficiency anaemia that may result in weakness, fatigue, and pale skin often occurs with the condition due to persistent bleeding from the bowel, leading to blood and iron loss.
  • A feeling of incomplete bowel movements: A feeling of incomplete emptying after bowel movements or a persistent urge to have a bowel movement, even after having one.
  • Bowel obstruction: In some cases, bowel cancer may cause a partial or complete blockage in the bowel, leading to symptoms such as severe abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and inability to pass gas or have a bowel movement. 

If you’re experiencing any of these, it’s worth heading to your doctor. Michal’s advice for those seeking out testing for bowel cancer or other health conditions? Speak up. This former professor says it’s vital not to let doctors push you aside.

“People need to advocate for their own healthcare and push to get tested regardless of family history or lack of risk factors,” Michal says. “I think testing should start at 40 and occur every 5 years. Younger if risk factors are present." 

For more information on bowel cancer, head on over to Bowel Cancer Australia.



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