Page last updated at 01:04 GMT, Saturday, 12 June 2004 02:04 UK

'It's good to talk' about bowel cancer

By Melissa Jackson
BBC News Online health staff

Why are men so reluctant to go to the doctor or admit they have a health problem until they are quite literally at death's door?

Paul Sadler
Paul Sadler delayed his response to symptoms

It is an age-old problem recognised by wives, mothers, girlfriends and the medical profession and National Men's Health Week is being launched to combat this very serious condition.

Spearheaded by the Beating Bowel Cancer charity and the Men's Health Forum, it aims to highlight the importance of early diagnosis.

One bowel cancer survivor believes it was largely because of her "feminine persistence" in the face of medical hesitance that she is alive today.

It is an attribute she believes men must adopt if they are to have a good chance of surviving this very treatable disease.

Jan Scott is 59 and enjoying early retirement in Dorset, although at one stage, she wondered whether she would ever reach this milestone.

Her problems started in 1985, when she went to the doctor after noticing there was blood in her stools.

Her GP diagnosed piles and she was treated for the condition and thought that was the end of the matter.

It was to be the start of a long and very painful episode and many visits to the surgery.

Men are worse than women about talking about medical matters
Jan Scott, cancer survivor

By 1988 she was experiencing regular stomach pains, but the doctor did not think it was anything serious.

She was outwardly fit and healthy, playing squash and badminton and although she smoked regularly, she described herself as "active".

"By 1996, I started to feel really ill," she said.

"I didn't feel well in myself. I had bouts of gastro-enteritis, but the doctors did not suspect anything more serious."

By March 1997, she was feeling "wobbly" and very sick. The doctor referred her to a specialist, who put a probe up her rectum and found nothing more than piles, which he treated.

But she was still feeling ill and knew there was something more serious going on.

She said: "I went back to my doctor and insisted on him taking some blood tests."

The blood tests showed she had anaemia, of the type the doctor said could not be treated with iron tablets.

Further blood tests revealed the same problem and she insisted on going to see a specialist.

Surgery

She went privately to see a gastroenterologist, who found an advanced stage tumour.

Mrs Scott had surgery to remove the tumour and a six-month course of chemotherapy.

They found the cancer had spread to two lymph nodes, which were also removed. Her chances of survival were put at 40/60 or possibly 50/50.

She is not angry about the late diagnosis, but philosophical.

She said: "If all this had been looked at 12 years previously when I first started to have a problem they would have found a small growth that would have been removed there and then and that would have been that."

She has been clear of cancer for six years now and counts herself lucky to be alive.

Her concern is not for herself, but for the general public, especially men.

She said: "Men are worse than women about talking about medical matters.

"Men naturally don't want to talk about it and they always say 'I don't want anyone messing about down there' but if it saves their life, they're going to have to.

"I have three sons and I'm encouraging them to get checked at the first sign any symptoms."

Embarrassment

Paul Sadler was a bit reluctant to admit there was something wrong with him, but he is now very glad he did.

The 57-year-old manager tried to convince himself the blood-stains on the toilet paper were nothing to worry about and admits: "It was a while before I spoke to anyone."

In fact he did not go to his doctor until six months after the first symptoms appeared.

"I did not think it was anything important at first," he said.

But it was bowel cancer, for which he needed radiotherapy and surgery.

His tumour was "on the brink" of bursting through the bowel wall.

Jan Scott
Jan Scott had advanced cancer

If this had happened, he could have suffered secondary cancers elsewhere in the body.

He said: "I count myself extremely lucky.

"I would strongly advise anyone with any problem relating to the bowels to talk to their GP and I would love the government to bring in a national screening programme for bowel cancer."

National Men's Health Week, which begins on 14 June, is encouraging men to "flush away their blushes" and talk matters through with their GP if they noticed any unusual symptoms associated with their bowels.

Bowel cancer is the third most common cancer in men and claims the lives of almost 9,000 males every year.

But if it is picked up in the early stages it is completely curable.

Beating Bowel Cancer head of communications Tara MacDowell said: "More than 50% of bowel cancers are not picked up until they are at an advanced stage - that's when the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.

"Embarrassment is a massive factor. There's something about that part of the body that people find difficult to talk about."

But there is no advantage to being shy. In fact keeping quiet about it could be a matter of life or death.

National Men's Health Week runs from 14-20 June.



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