Whānau describe their bowel cancer experiences as advocates call for lower eligible free screening age

Reverend Peter Naera's wife was diagnosed with bowel cancer in October 2020, and by December that year she had died.

"The tumour was massive and it had got into her bone, it had got into her cervix and by the last CT scan, they could identify it had already reached her liver," Naera told The Hui.

"A week later we're having a colonoscopy, a week after that we're admitted into Whangarei Hospital and then a week later we're discharged with the news, 'You've got roughly two months' and it was two months to the day, that's how quick it was."

Aotearoa has one of the highest rates of bowel - or colorectal - cancer in the world, and is the third most deadly cancer for Māori. 

There's been a push to detect this type of cancer in its early stages where it can often be successfully treated and that's led to a nationwide initiative across the country's 20 district health boards (DHB). The latest is in Northland where 36,000 testing kits will be sent out over two years and expects to diagnose about 50 cancers through this home screening.

The focus is very much on Māori whānau, because while Māori are less likely to get bowel cancer - once diagnosed, they are 30 percent more likely to die from the disease. The aim of the programme is early detection, because if the cancer is found early enough, it has a better chance of being treated. Testing is free for those aged 60 to 74 years old, an age range that discriminates against Māori because a greater proportion of bowel cancer in Māori occurs before the age of 60.

Stuart Selkirk is part of promoting Te Tai Tokerau's screening programme and admits the eligible age is too high for Māori.

"It is too high but to become a national programme we had to start at some point and I know we're all saying the same thing at each DHB is how can we lower the age range because of course a lot of our whānau are being affected a lot younger than 60," Selkirk said.

Respected kaumatua Rex Nathan has been talking with whānau groups, spreading the message and addressing their concerns with testing procedures.

"In terms of Māori and Pasifika, I would prefer that the age is lowered to 50 because we know that Māori and Pasifika people would die a lot earlier than other non-Māori and non-Pacific groups. We've certainly tried, and I think they've been listening," Nathan said.

The whakamā around having stool tests is thought to be a significant obstacle to early detection. But the home testing kit allows samples to be collected in the privacy of people's own bathroom, removing some of the barriers for whānau to bowel cancer screening.

"Some people regard that as being very tapu, particularly within Māori families, they don't like to send part of their body back in the post and so we encourage them that it's a very minute part that could help save their life in the end," Nathan added.

Bowel cancer runs in the whakapapa of the Stephens whānau.

It took the life of Walter and Bubsy, and their younger sister 63-year-old Alma Stevens has had three polyps in her bowel removed and has to have check-ups every five years to make sure that there's no cancerous growths.

"A couple of times I had to take my stool into the laboratory to get it checked and it's quite embarrassing. Now that we can do it at home, we get a bowel screening kit, it's simple," Alma said.

She and her whānau want to encourage others to get tested too and to remind them that this is a cancer that can happen at any age and to anyone.

"This kaupapa has really made us aware of the sickness that is in our whakapapa and it's brought us more closer in regards to ensuring that we look after ourselves and do the screen testing and colonoscopy on a regular basis," Alma's brother Hepa Stephens said.

Selkirk said the pandemic has made whānau more aware of the importance of their hauora.

"If there is such a thing as a positive side of COVID is that it's made us all look at our own wellness and our own health, welfare and the bowel screening programme has come along at a good time, I feel in that we can now look at our bowel cancer wellness within Te Tai Tokerau."

Made with support from Te Māngai Pāho and the Public Interest Journalism Fund.