When Heather Turner got an unexpected delivery in the mail after her birthday, it took months before she even opened it.
It was a month after her 50th birthday in October 2010 when the NSW woman received a bowel cancer screening kit in her letterbox.
She wouldn’t pull it out of her drawer again until February 2011 and follow the test instructions that initially put her off.
The results came back positive and a colonoscopy and CT scan revealed she had stage three bowel cancer.
“I had no symptoms to speak of,” she said. “You often hear that people have blood in the stool or experience weight loss – I had none of these symptoms. I was often bloated, but put that down to menopause and other aspects of my life.
“If I hadn’t used the kit, I wouldn’t be here today. The thought of the test might be uncomfortable, but at the end of the day, it’s free and painless – and it might really save your life.”
Cancer Council NSW has today released new data showing that Ms Turner’s is among 107,000 lives that have been saved thanks to improvements in cancer prevention, early detection, screening and treatment over the past 20 years.
Their study, which looked at the changes in cancer incidence and mortality in Australia between 1996-2015, found that while there were two per cent more cases, there were 20.6 per cent fewer cancer deaths in under 75s than expected, based on rates in 1995.
Senior research fellow Dr Eleonora Feletto said with Australia having one of the highest cancer incidence rates in the world, figures like this were really encouraging.
“We can see that improvements in prevention, early detection and treatments played an integral role in the mortality reduction,” she said.
“We know that early detection is vital and that’s why established screening programs, such as the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program, are one of the best ways to reduce cancer incidence rates in the Australian population.
“Tobacco control measures have also been instrumental and our previous work has shown they’ve saved an estimated 78,000 lives between 1956 and 2015.”
But the Cancer Council warns that the impact of COVID-19 on screening services may affect rates in years to come, with disruptions to cancer diagnostic services during the 2020 lockdown.
“Medicare services for the diagnosis of breast cancer were down almost 40 per cent at the peak of lockdown and we don’t yet know the impact that this may have had on future cancer rates,” Dr Feletto said.
“We acknowledge there is still a lot more work to be done. The continued improvement in cancer prevention, early detection and treatment is vital, even more so with the impact of COVID-19, to ensure we continue to see further lives saved in the future.”
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Ms Turner said she felt lucky she had caught her cancer early. She was immediately in hospital for surgery and then went through five months of chemotherapy, as part of a clinical trial.
She is now a volunteer with Cancer Council Connect, a peer support program that matches survivors with patients going through a similar experience so they can draw support from them.
“Having had cancer has changed how I view little things – I just don’t sweat the small stuff anymore,” she said.
“But the fact that the cancer could return is always in the back of my mind – for example, I’m now much more keenly aware of potential physical symptoms.”
She’s encouraging anyone over 50 to take the bowel cancer screening test when they get it in the mail.
If you or someone you know has been impacted by cancer and needs support, call Cancer Council’s free, confidential information and support line on 13 11 20. You can also donate to help Cancer Council NSW’s lifesaving cancer research save more lives.