Fit and healthy Kiwi woman's warning to others after discovering bowel cancer during prenatal tests

Fit and healthy Kiwi woman's warning to others after discovering bowel cancer during prenatal tests
Photo credit: Instagram / Rachael Ferguson

A fit and healthy Kiwi woman whose bowel cancer was discovered during prenatal tests is urging people to get tested, even if they're not showing any symptoms.

Rachael Ferguson, 32, visited her GP last year because she and her husband were planning to have a baby, and a preexisting blood condition meant she would have to switch her medication. After she was sent for a blood test, it came back she was severely anaemic and had incredibly low iron levels. 

It was then she realised she had recently noticed a little bit of blood in her stool. When she told her doctor the blood was bright red, they sent her for a flexible sigmoidoscopy, which only looks at the lower part of a person's colon.

That was when Ferguson's cancer was discovered.

"It was very surreal, actually, because to feel completely normal and then to find you've got something dangerously wrong was very, very surreal. I didn't believe it at first and even now I don't, because it didn't feel right to me," Ferguson tells Newshub.

As a healthy 32-year-old, she says the diagnosis came as a shock, especially given she had next to no symptoms but found out the cancer had been in her body "for multiple years". Her diagnosis at a young age was also a surprise.

"I had someone in hospital with me who'd had it in her 30s. It's just insane."

Following her flexible sigmoidoscopy on December 30, she had surgery to remove the cancer on February 26 which went successfully.

"Originally, it was only to do the resection of my bowel, but a closer look at a spot on my liver from the original MRI - and then I had a follow-up MRI - showed that spot on my liver looked like it could've been cancer," Ferguson says.

Doctors thought it was a spot of blood, but on a closer look they thought it didn't look quite right. Ferguson ended up getting a liver resection too to remove a piece of cancer, which was unplanned until a few days before her surgery date, but it all went well.

She is now encouraging anyone, even if they feel healthy and aren't showing any symptoms, to get tested, especially if it's in your family history.

"I think we really need to push for these tests. You know your body best out of anyone in the world, so if you think that something could be wrong, then you're entitled to have these tests. They're available, we have the systems in place," she says.

"Cancer's one of those things that goes undetected for so long, and when you do have symptoms, sometimes it can be too late. I just wish there was more that we did for people to just get a regular test."

New Zealand has one of the highest bowel cancer rates in the world and it is the second-highest cause of cancer death in the country. Over 3000 New Zealanders are diagnosed each year and 1200 die from it. More than 350 people under the age of 50 are diagnosed each year.

Bowel Cancer NZ estimates that one in 18 New Zealanders will develop bowel cancer in their lifetime.

Common signs and symptoms Bowel Cancer NZ says to look out for may include

  • rectal bleeding
  • a change of bowel motions or habits that come and go over several weeks
  • anaemia
  • severe persistent or periodic abdominal pain
  • a lump or mass in the abdomen
  • tiredness and loss of weight for no obvious reason.

In a recent video Ferguson posted to Instagram, she said in sharing her story, she hopes it will create awareness for people who may have bowel cancer.

"It's as simple as going to have a colonoscopy. Don't be afraid, it sounds kind of creepy, it is an invasive procedure, but it's not painful and if it's going to save your life then you need to do it," she said.

"I was so afraid to share my story because you hear cancer and you think, 'what'. And then especially because I feel a million dollars, it was pretty crazy stuff."

After sharing the video, which has had nearly 17,000 views, Ferguson says she's had several people message her with their concerns. One of them had been told they were "too young" to have a test.

"I just find that really quite hard to fathom when there's so many people, even younger than me, getting diagnosed with bowel cancer. So how can you say you're too young to have it therefore you won't have it," Ferguson says.

"I'm grateful that my GP said to me that, 'If I were you, I'd want to know'. I got sent for that screening as a precaution. It's not like doctors don't have that option to help patients a bit more."

For people that do end up getting tested, she says it's important to have a support system to rely on.

"Even though you may feel like you don't need it, it's really nice to know that you have people there for when you do."