New calls for bowel cancer screening as many diagnosed too late

A new study reveals too many New Zealanders are finding out they have incurable bowel cancer too late. 

New research reveals a third of patients have no idea they have the disease until they turn up unwell to a hospital. Source: 1 NEWS

What's more, a third of patients are not being diagnosed until they turn up at a hospital emergency department riddled with disease.

The PIPER project, funded by the Health Ministry and Health Research Council, studied 5500 patient files in 2007/08. 

It found that 30 per cent of bowel cancer patients first learned they had the disease when they arrived at a hospital emergency department. 

Lead researcher Professor Michael Findlay says "this is of significant concern because when patients present to the emergency department the disease is more advanced".

We're letting 1200 people die each year - Sarah Derrett

The study found New Zealand has a higher proportion of patients diagnosed with stage four or incurable bowel cancer than other countries at 24 per cent as opposed to 19 per cent for Australia and 17 per cent for the UK, both of which have national bowel cancer screening programmes. 

Bowel Cancer New Zealand's Sarah Derrett, also one of the PIPER researchers, says this study renews repeated calls for the Government to speed up nationwide bowel cancer screening here and extend the four-year Waitemata Pilot to test all older New Zealanders.

"Currently we're letting 1200 people die each year from this cancer and we still have no decision, we still have no action," Ms Derrett says.  

Health Minister Jonathan Coleman says it is a priority and that he is taking a business case to Cabinet later this year to look at what would be required to roll out nationwide screening.

But he says, "we need to be able to do the numbers of colonoscopies before we can roll it out, but we're building up to that". 

This is just ridiculously ironic - Katherine Lawrenson

The study findings are tragically poignant for one of the PIPER researchers, Professor Ross Lawrenson. 

His own daughter, 35-year-old Cromwell mother-of-three Katherine Lawrenson, was rushed to Auckland Hospital's emergency department with stomach pains while in the city on holiday. 

After a CT scan doctors informed her she had bowel cancer.

"I'd had a little boy eight weeks earlier, my third son, so to get that news was devastating" she says.

Cancer cell. Source: BBC

Later tests by her Dunedin Hospital oncologist confirmed her cancer was at stage four and had spread beyond the bowel to her lymph glands and blood.

"He pretty much said there was no cure for the stage I was at and all we can really do at the moment is keep bombarding it with chemo and hopefully prolong my life for as long as we can," Ms Lawrenson says.

The fact her own father was involved in a study which revealed late diagnosis of bowel cancer was poignant. 

"This is just ridiculously ironic that my father is so particularly involved in this study and this is exactly what's happening to me right now," she says.

Katherine Lawrenson, whose father is researching bowel cancer, is battling the disease herself. Source: 1 NEWS

The PIPER study also reveals only 60 per cent of stage four bowel cancer patients are having chemotherapy in New Zealand. 

Professor Michael Findlay says this may be because some are too elderly or ill with other health issues to tolerate treatment, or fearful of chemo's side effects. 

He says survival rates for stage three bowel cancer after chemo are now two years on average and sometimes even longer. 

"There is now a group that are coming to our clinic who are still alive five years down the track after an apparently incurable diagnosis," he says.  

Givealittle page for Ms Lawrenson has raised close to $30,000 to dates.