18 Aug 2015

Man died after GP failed to diagnose bowel cancer

7:26 pm on 18 August 2015

An Auckland woman whose husband died of advanced bowel cancer says she is angry he was diagnosed too late to be saved.

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There are growing calls for a national screening programme for bowel cancer. Photo: 123rf.com

A study released yesterday found that a quarter of patients diagnosed with bowel cancer in New Zealand have late-stage disease that has spread.

Of this group, 22 percent have an even more serious obstruction, or blockage of the bowel.

The study has renewed calls for the Government to say when it will begin national screening for bowel cancer.

An Auckland woman - who asked to be known only as Sarah - said her husband only found out he had advanced bowel cancer when he arrived at a hospital emergency department in Auckland in excruciating pain in early 2011.

She said her husband, who was in his early 50s, woke up in extreme pain one night, wanting to vomit.

"He said to me - he wasn't a person to panic at all - but he said to please call the ambulance, I need to go to hospital.

Sarah says that in hospital he was diagnosed with bowel cancer that had spread to the lungs, lymph nodes and liver.

Her husband had chemotherapy, even though the chances of success at the late stage of the cancer were not good. He died 18 months after the diagnosis, aged 54.

Sarah said the lack of an early diagnosis made her very angry. "I felt angry because my husband had been to the GP and had complained of some stomach problems a few months earlier, and he had basically been told with very little diagnosis, I think ,that he had gastroenteritis, and he was sent away with some pills."

She said her husband was French and would have received better care in his home country. "I feel furious really because over in France they have national screening from the age of 50. He was 54 when he died and his friends had been offered the [screening] test, been sent a letter in the mail and been offered it and he hadn't."

Sarah said there was little awareness about bowel cancer in 2011 and what symptoms to be alert to, such as bleeding from the bowel.

"Of course now I say to everyone go and ... pay, because it's just so important."

She said the Government must follow France, Australia and the United Kingdom and introduce national screening as soon as possible. "I think it's false economy not to have national screening when you take into consideration how much it is for chemo, not to mention all the other services involved. When a person dies of the disease you've got all the other things afterwards. It's costly for the whole economy."

The Health Ministry's clinical director for bowel cancer, Susan Parry, said improvements had occurred in New Zealand since the Piper study. She said intensive planning was under way to pave the way for a national roll-out of bowel cancer screening, when it gets the government go-ahead.

Dr Parry said a lot has been learnt from a pilot bowel screening programme at Waitemata District Health Board in Auckland. "We have learnt an awful lot about how to deliver the pilot bowel screening in New Zealand and what are the potential infrastructure and workforce requirements that we need to introduce or to consider. That is why we're now starting the national consultation around the options that we have developed based on the results of the bowel screening pilot."

She rejected criticism it was occurring late in this country. "Although we are late, or later starting, we are under way and there are other similar countries that have just started screening."

Dr Parry said it was important that once screening begins nationally, the health system was able to deliver the appropriate tests, including colonoscopies, required to confirm a diagnosis and treat patients.

Health Minister Jonathan Coleman said he expected to take a business case to Cabinet by year end for national screening that could be rolled out in stages from early 2017.

"You can't launch a screening programme without the capacity to do the colonoscopies, and without the people to do them," he said.

"We've done an extra 6000 colonoscopies over the last few years but it is a priority and we have to take the results of that study very seriously."