Let’s talk about the health crisis that receives too little attention – bowel cancer.

Four times as many New Zealanders are killed by bowel cancer every year – 1,200 – than die on our roads.

Three thousand Kiwis are newly diagnosed annually. Bowel cancer will kill as many of us in 2015 as breast and prostate cancers combined, and bowel cancer is the main reason New Zealand’s overall death rate from cancer is higher than Australia’s.

There is a wealth of research demonstrating that national screening for bowel cancer improves outcomes and saves lives. Yet, despite New Zealand’s internationally leading status in terms of bowel cancer death rates, we are still without a national screening programme.

The Waitemata DHB screening pilot, and recent findings from the national PIPER study, confirm the need for screening.

What is missing is a commitment from government.

At best, the government is ‘considering’ a ‘potential roll-out’ starting in 2017 which is much too late given 2500 people will die of bowel cancer between now and 2017.

The absence of a decision about screening is taking its toll on our country in terms of hundreds of lives that could be saved each year by early detection through screening.
In addition to screening, we also need to be less hesitant about discussing possible bowel cancer symptoms with our GPs.

Shyness means that some of us are, literally, dying of embarrassment. We need to break the taboo. Learn about the most common symptoms, which include rectal bleeding, a persistent change in bowel habits, abdominal pain, lumps or mass in the abdominal area, and weight loss and tiredness, which can signify anaemia.

However, for many, the symptoms of bowel cancer are not obvious and that makes the call for a screening programme all the more important. In the one DHB region where screening is available, Waitemata, more than 250 people have been identified via the screening programme – many of whom were completely unaware they had bowel cancer.

So, be as aware as you can, but also take action on behalf of the 1200 who will die of bowel cancer this year.

Write to your MP, the Minister of Health and shadow ministers to demand a national rollout of the successful Waitemata pilot to the other 19 DHBs.

The lack of a national screening programme is unconscionable – and the time for a decision is now a decade overdue.

For more information visit www.beatbowelcancer.org.nz

Mary Bradley is chairperson of Bowel Cancer New Zealand and a bowel cancer survivor.