Avonhead woman Flora Downes admits her experience of bowel cancer has left her a little bitter.

“I thought, how could this happen? I did everything to minimise the risk. I didn’t smoke, I exercised and I got all the checks done.”

At 58, the international banker and mother of two adult sons has managed to keep a twinkle in her eye, despite the trauma of fighting bowel cancer over the past two years.

Despite a family history of the disease – her mother and aunt both died from bowel cancer – and 10 years of treatment for “bowel issues” and colitis, she had to wait seven months for a diagnostic colonoscopy.

The devastating news was “brutal”. However, she was adamant she would not follow in her mother’s footsteps.

“I thought, ‘I’m gonna kick this bastard for touch’.”

By the time of her operation in February last year, the tumour had grown to 50 millimetres and through her bowel wall.

Surgeons removed the tumour and gave Downes a temporary colostomy while the bowel healed.

In April she began a gruelling six months of weekly chemotherapy – “the hardest thing I have ever done”.

In November she went back to hospital to have her bowel rejoined.

The long, complicated and traumatic process has motivated Downes to lobby for more action on the disease.

“It seems to be the forgotten cancer. I don’t think people understand the high risk.”

Despite colorectal (bowel) cancer being recognised as the second most common cause of death from cancer in New Zealand, the introduction of a national screening programme with a Faecal Occult Blood Test (FOBT) is years from becoming a reality.

Access to screening, diagnostic colonoscopies and public awareness of symptoms are the keys to getting death rates down, says Beat Bowel Cancer Aoteoroa (BBCA).

Downes said the lack of resources meant lives were being lost as a result.

“You can get a blood test for prostate cancer, you can go and get a mammogram, but if you say you want your bowel checked they say ‘well we know better, you can’t tell if you need that done’.”

Detecting the disease has become an election issue, with Labour committed to funding a national screening programme to the tune of $42 million over three years.

A bowel cancer screening pilot in the Waitemata District Health Board region started in 2011 and Health Minister Tony Ryall has said a national rollout is “inevitable”.

BBCA says this will mean an eight-year wait for something that has been proven to work overseas.

A positive result from screening is followed up with a colonoscopy to detect cancer. Whether there are enough staff qualified to perform the procedure is currently being debated.

Ryall has said another 100 endoscopists are needed before a screening programme could be rolled out and he recently announced a programme to train nurses in the procedure.

Bowel cancer surgeon and professor at the University of Otago, Christchurch surgeon Frank Frizelle, said 20 to 25 endoscopists would be needed.

He said data from the first round of the pilot programme made it “painfully obvious” a screening programme could save hundreds of lives.

Waitemata’s pilot results show 164 people had cancer detected as a result of the screening.

Frizelle said the programme was a “time filler” and the Government could not commit to a national programme because it had not prioritised one in the budget.

“He’s [Ryall] obviously playing the party line – don’t commit to something you don’t have to.”

Canterbury DHB clinical director of gastroenterology Dr Michael Burt said about 4000 publicly funded colonoscopies were performed in Canterbury each year but some patients would wait for three to four months to receive one “due to the number of referrals and capacity”. Others would not be eligible at all.

“We do not and cannot provide a screening service to those at mildly increased risk on the basis of their family history or normal-risk individuals.”

– The Press