Emma Mitchell’s support group: her family, members of the Alfredton Playgroup and the local community, as well as Alfredton Primary School pupils. PHOTO/BECKIE WILSON
Being a 33-year-old fit and healthy mum does not make you immune from getting cancer, as Alfredton woman Emma Mitchell can testify.
It has been almost a year since she was diagnosed with stage three bowel cancer.
Since having surgery in September, followed by about four months of chemotherapy, she now views her life with husband Brian, and their three children, very differently.
In early July last year, she received the news no one wants to hear — she had cancer.
New Zealand has one of the highest rates of bowel cancer in the world, and it is the second biggest cause of cancer death in New Zealand, after lung cancer.
June has been Bowel Cancer Awareness month, which aims to raise awareness that the cancer can strike at any age.
Members of the Alfredton community rely on each other a lot and Mitchell, now 34, admits she and her family would not have been able to get through the past year without the support of those around her.
Looking back on the years leading up to the diagnosis, Mitchell remembers times when she was sick, or after having her youngest child, that she took longer to recover than normal.
“I had problems for years to be honest — bloating, blood in stools, severe anemia.”
She went to the doctors many times but was told she was just “an overworked young mum”.
Mitchell cannot stress enough how important it is to be aware of changes in your own body.
“I mainly want people to take notice and talk about it, no one likes to talk about their poos.”
And she did not want young people to feel discouraged from investigating their health further, just because a doctor has said “you’re young, fit and healthy”.
“It’s not impossible to get sick just because you’re so young,” she said.
“I’d do the school bus run, then come home and have a sleep, and wake up just to do that again, I was just so exhausted.”
She always played sports but had to give that up too.
The tumor was close to her liver, at the start of the bowel.
By the time it was found, the cancer had spread to three nearby lymph nodes which required her to have chemotherapy.
The tumor was slow-growing, and her surgeon told her it could have been in her body for about six years.
“I would have had it in my twenties easily, and when I was pregnant with my youngest — that’s a really scary thought.”
She had eight chemotherapy treatments, finishing in early January, travelling back and forward to Palmerston North.
When she was first diagnosed, she wanted to keep the news quiet before telling the close-knit rural community.
“Then I told my friends in Alfredton, and they threw me a “diagnosis party” just before my surgery, where all of Alfredton came,” she said.
She was able to tell everyone at once about the diagnosis, and they brought pre-made meals and filled the freezer to help her husband and family out during her recovery, she said.
“Because we are so rural you have to depend on each other. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without them.”
Support came from far and wide, from nearby farmers offering to help her husband out on the farm, to her mother and sister-in-laws regularly cleaning the house because she couldn’t.
The Alfredton Playgroup put together food hampers and regularly stocked the freezer with food.
“That trickled down to my kids as well, they got really well looked after by their peers at school,” she said.
Follow-up results show the cancer has gone, but a CT scan next month will offer more assurance on that.
Now, Mitchell is focused on recovery, and getting back to living her “new life” with her family.
“It’s a different life, I definitely believe I live in paradise now,” she said.
Wairarapa screening exceeds national target
New Zealand has one of the highest first-world bowel cancer mortality rates with more than 3000 new cases a year.
The National Bowel Screening Programme is a free initiative to help detect bowel cancer and is offered every two years to men and women aged 60 to 74, who are eligible for publicly funded health care.
More than 8000 people are eligible to take part in Wairarapa.
Symptoms include change in bowel motions, severe abdomen pain, anaemia, and tiredness.
The Ministry of Health’s target for participation is 62 per cent, Wairarapa’s participation exceeds it, at 68 per cent.
Dr Annie Lincoln, Wairarapa’s GP lead for the National Bowel Screening Programme, encouraged all eligible people to participate.
“It is a simple test that is quickly done, very privately at home, and literally can save lives.”
She said the bowel screening programme in Wairarapa has increased referrals for people coming to their doctors with bowel symptoms.
“We want everyone to be aware of their bowel health – not just the screening population.
“If you notice anything of concern – see your doctor. Don’t wait for the screening. Early action means early treatment which can keep you alive – it really is that simple.”
For more information on the screening programme, visit timetoscreen.nz or call 0800924432.