Why you should be talking to your doctor about bowel cancer

Every year, more than 5,300 Australians die from bowel cancer – that’s around 100 people each week. And while it is one of the most treatable cancers when found early, often it is diagnosed far too late.

As medical negligence lawyers, we often hear stories about missed opportunities to diagnose bowel cancer early. Whether due to misdiagnosis, a failure to acknowledge a patient’s symptoms or not asking the right questions, the personal impacts can be devastating.

In this article, we share some of our clients’ experiences. The aim of sharing these stories is to highlight the importance of early detection, and to encourage you to visit your doctor if something isn’t right.

What are the symptoms of bowel cancer?

Not everyone will have symptoms of bowel cancer in the early stages. But it’s important to be aware of the warning signs and to see your doctor as soon as you notice something.

Common symptoms for bowel cancer may include:

  • persistent changes in bowel habits
  • blood in stools
  • abdominal bloating, cramping or pain
  • unexplained loss of appetite.

Sarah’s story

Sarah* was 28 years’ old when she noticed rectal bleeding, accompanied by a fever and rash. Worried, she went straight to her local emergency department. After a few tests, her initial results were clear and she was discharged. She was told she would be contacted soon to arrange a colonoscopy.

Critically, Sarah never heard from hospital. And although she continued to experience symptoms, she brushed them off because they weren’t as severe as they had been. She also assumed the hospital was probably busy.

About nine months later, Sarah began experiencing extreme abdominal pain and went back to the emergency department. It was then that she was diagnosed with Stage 4 bowel cancer, which had spread to her lymph nodes and lungs.

At just 28, Sarah was given 2—3 years to live. Tragically, her doctor said that if she had the colonoscopy nine months earlier, it’s very likely they would have been able to remove the bowel cancer before it spread.

Michael’s story

Like Sarah, Michael* noticed rectal bleeding and sought a professional opinion straight away. Michael had recently begun seeing a new GP who was also a HIV specialist – as he had been living with HIV for a number of years.

Michael told his GP about his symptoms and after a physical examination he was prescribed some haemorrhoid cream. When Michael’s symptoms continued, his GP continued to treat him for haemorrhoids.

Months later, Michael told his GP that the bleeding had been incessant for two months. This time his GP said he probably had an intestinal parasite and prescribed medication.

Michael’s GP never referred him for a colonoscopy, even though he fell into a number of risk categories, including his age and medical history.

Two weeks later, Michael began experiencing extreme bowel pain and went to hospital. It was then that was finally referred for a colonoscopy and diagnosed with Stage 4 bowel cancer, which had spread to his liver.

Michael is now undergoing chemotherapy and radiotherapy and will have three operations before the end of the year.

The importance of early detection

Michael’s GP has since apologised for not investigating his symptoms further. However, all too often, people like Michael and Sarah get lost in the system.

In both cases, if a colonoscopy had been ordered earlier, literature suggests that it is very likely they would have been able to stop the spread of the cancer – with very different health outcomes.

If you notice any symptoms, or something doesn’t seem right, you should see your GP and make sure your concerns are taken seriously. If your GP doesn’t investigate your symptoms and test for bowel cancer you can seek a second opinion, seek a specialist opinion, request a colonoscopy or order your own bowel cancer screening test.

If you would like more information please visit the Let’s Beat Bowel Cancer website.

* names have been changed to protect identity

Would you know the early signs of bowel cancer? Image of woman in a field.

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Lydia Keating

Maurice Blackburn Melbourne
Lydia Keating is a medical negligence lawyer in our Melbourne office. Lydia supports her clients to navigate this complex area of law and to understand their rights and entitlement to compensation. "Pursuing a medical negligence claim can be a very stressful time. It's a ...

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