Cancer Australia has released important data indicating which cancers are identified early and which ones are recognised during its later stages.
The data shows that lung and bowel cancer are often at their most advanced when they are diagnosed. A mere 18% of lung cancer patients are diagnosed during the disease’s early stages. The same can also be said of 46% of bowel cancer patients.
In contrast, 92% of melanomas are spotted early as well as 82% of prostate cancers, and 77% of female breast cancers. However, data uncovered that bowel cancer was being identified early among those aged 50 and up, thereby lending credence to the effectiveness of the national bowel-screening program.
“Participants in the bowel cancer screening program tended to have less advanced cancers,” said Cancer Australia chief executive, Dr Helen Zorbas, in a recent report.
“I think there’s strong data that indicates the benefit of screening.”
“I don’t want to talk about poo … get over that”
Stephanie Bansemer-Brown said she believed that the delay in diagnosis of bowel cancer could possibly be attributed to stigma.
“People say, ‘I don’t want to talk about poo, I don’t want to do a test on poo’ — get over that,” she said.
She was just 41 when she was diagnosed with stage 3 bowel cancer.
“I was a new mum with a two-and-a-half year old,” she said. I was working for a TV station at the time, head of marketing, so a fairly high-pressured environment.”
She’d been to her GP with blood in her poo 18 months earlier but that was dismissed as mere pregnancy-related haemorrhoids. It was a conversation with her sister that led her to go and have a colonoscopy. It later uncovered that she had bowel cancer and that it had spread to some of her lymph nodes.
“My initial reaction was ‘this can’t be happening, how can I have a bowel cancer? I’m too young.’ I wasn’t sure whether I was going to come out the other side to be honest.”
The discovery was soon followed by surgery, a temporary ileostomy (stoma) bag and six months of chemotherapy.
“I had a really little boy who didn’t really know what was going on. For me it was, let’s just tackle this head on and that’s what I did.”
Ms Bansemer-Brown has been cancer-free for six years now and said she’d like to see more honest discussions about bowel behaviours among the public and GPs.
“I think people think that it’s an old person’s disease,” she remarked. “It’s not about age.
“If you’re presenting with symptoms or a family history, then you need to have a check. I know if I left it any longer I wouldn’t be sitting here today.”
Anybody can get lung cancer, even non-smokers
The data also showed that most of lung cancers, 42%, were identified at stage 4 and had already spread in the body.
Marilyn Nelson also thought that stigma was a sensitive issue with spotting lung cancer. She said since she’d been diagnosed, people often make the mistake of believing she’d been a smoker and were insensitive.
“For someone who’s got this awful disease it’s like a whack in the face. It’s awful,” she said. “There’s a large swag of us who never even touched a cigarette. Anybody can get lung cancer.”
Lisa Briggs is also a healthy young mother who has never smoked a cigarette. But when she was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer, she found herself often isolated and misjudged.
Her cancer was only detected by sheer luck at stage 2 when she was having a scan for an issue totally unrelated to the disease.
“I had no symptoms, I had no risk factors and so it was just complete bolt out of the blue,” she said. “I didn’t even have a cough — nothing.”
The scan displayed a mass in the top of her right lung and it had spread to the lining of her lung.
“It was a shock. I was 61 and I was still working full time,” she said.
Nelson has been dealing with cancer for the past five years, undergoing surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation, and now targeted genetic therapies in a clinical trial.
She said during her treatment, she’d only met a few people who were detected early.
“Almost all of them are picked up by chance when they have some sort of an X-ray or CT scan or something else.”
For Nelson, it makes all the sense in the world to establish a national screening program for lung cancer.
Her experience clearly proves that Australia needed to start population-based screening using low dose CT scans, similar to the United States.
“What’s happening over there is they’re picking up lots more people at early stages and that means it’s at a time when they may be able to cure them,” she said. “It just has to be done. It’s going to save so many lives.”