Southern Cross Healthcare consultant gastroenterologist partners Dr. Cameron Schauer and Dr. Teresa Chalmers-Watson

Southern Cross Healthcare specialist partners on mission to raise bowel cancer awareness and save more lives

Tuesday , 25 June 2024 by Carolyn Brooke

With over eight people diagnosed each day, Aotearoa has one of the highest rates of bowel cancer in the world and despite it being highly preventable and treatable, the disease is the second most common cause of cancer deaths. That’s why this Bowel Cancer Awareness Month, Southern Cross Healthcare has partnered with its joint venture endoscopy partners Waitematā Endoscopy, The Rutherford Clinic and Southern Endoscopy plus Bowel Cancer New Zealand to raise awareness about bowel cancer.

Southern Cross Healthcare consultant gastroenterologist partners Dr. Cameron Schauer and Dr. Teresa Chalmers-Watson are urging New Zealanders who have symptoms or high-risk factors to get themselves checked early for bowel cancer.

“I am seeing people every day who have a delayed diagnosis of bowel cancer and for 30 per cent of them, by the time it is diagnosed, it has already spread from their bowel to other parts of the body. Bowel cancer is preventable and having a colonoscopy can reduce the risk by 90 per cent,” Dr Schauer said.

“One of the things we often find in a colonoscopy are polyps which, if not removed, can go on to be cancerous. Even though they can be very small (1 – 2 cm), removing them during the procedure removes the ability for them to continue to grow to become bowel cancer. We want to interrupt the cycle before the polyps grow.”

Colonoscopy is the gold standard to detect bowel cancer and is recommended following a bowel screening test that is positive – where microscopic blood is detected in a person’s stool, or they present to their GP with symptoms. Dr Schauer, a gastroenterologist, interventional endoscopist, general physician and University of Auckland clinical senior lecturer, works in public and private practice in Auckland.

“Now we have 30 per cent of bowel cancer diagnosis occurring in people under the age of 60, people are getting bowel cancer younger and younger.”

A national screening programme is in place for New Zealanders aged between 60 and 74 that can lead to a referral for a colonoscopy or other medical support. Some health insurance policies cover colonoscopies and GPs can also refer people who have symptoms or high-risk factors.

“If you’re eligible for screening or you can access a colonoscopy, then get it done. Keep track of your bowel habits and seek medical attention early if you have symptoms,” Dr Schauer said.

The key aim of the partnership between Bowel Cancer New Zealand and Southern Cross Healthcare and three of its three endoscopy joint-venture partners, Waitematā Endoscopy, The Rutherford Clinic and Southern Endoscopy, is to encourage more New Zealanders of all ages to check for symptoms and take action to prevent, treat and recover from bowel cancer.

Southern Cross Healthcare and the three endoscopy centres have also made a $20,000 donation to Bowel Cancer New Zealand to support nurse education and contribute to greater awareness and earlier detection.

It’s this education and awareness which is critical to success according to Dr Teresa-Chalmers, who agrees that the number of people presenting with delayed diagnosis of bowel cancer is highly concerning and often avoidable.

“There is no need to be embarrassed, just get yourself checked out. The good news is that nine out of ten bowel cancers that are caught early are curable. Get checked early – anyone who has access should take it up. If we find it early it’s highly treatable,” Dr Chalmers-Watson said.

Dr Chalmers-Watson, a consultant gastroenterologist, clinical senior lecturer and National Bowel Screening Programme’s clinical lead in the South Island, works in public and private practice in Canterbury and is also seeing more younger people with bowel cancer.

“While exercise, a nutritious diet, limiting alcohol and not smoking are all important for a healthy lifestyle, we are seeing people who have very healthy lifestyles and younger people present with bowel cancer. It’s important to understand that anyone can get bowel cancer.”

Modifiable risk factors for bowel cancer include obesity, a lack of exercise or physical activity, smoking, drinking alcohol and high consumption of red meat and processed foods. Non modifiable risk factors include family history of bowel cancer, bowel conditions such as inflammatory Bowel Disease and age.

“Screening works, screening saves lives. Get checked for bowel cancer if you can, it’s treatable if we catch it early.”

Bowel cancer is 90% curable if caught early, here are 5 symptoms

  • Bleeding from the bottom
  • Change in bowel habits
  • Persistent or sporadic abdominal pain
  • Lump or mass in stomach
  • Weight loss for no apparent reason