Bowel cancer survivor received shock diagnosis after health insurer gave free test

There are calls for the Government to lower the age of eligibility for bowel screening programmes.

Bowel cancer is the second highest cause of cancer death in New Zealand and, despite what many think, young people suffer from it too.

Eight months ago, Maureen Agnew was shocked to learn she had an aggressive form of bowel cancer. 

"Since then I've had numerous scans, surgery, and twelve cycles of chemotherapy which finished two weeks ago," Agnew said.

With seemingly no symptoms or family history of the disease it was a stroke of good luck that led to her diagnosis.

Her private health insurer nib, by chance, invited her to take a free test.

"They sent me the in-home screening tool, I did it, sent it off to the lab and then it was just a few days later I got a phone call to say my test was positive," she said.

Agnew, who is 59, doesn't qualify for the national bowel screening - it's only funded for those between the ages of 60 and 74.

"Scarily, all my specialists have said if I waited until I was eligible I wouldn't have made my 60th birthday which is coming up in October," Agnew said.

And she's not alone, every day on average, around three New Zealanders die from bowel cancer.

That's 1200 of us every year - as many as breast and prostate cancer combined. One in 10 of whom are under the age of 50.

"Around the world in Australia, the screening age starts at 50 and even in America they recommend starting screening from 45," nib Group Chief Medical Officer Dr Robert McGarth said.

Te Whatu Ora said a lowering of the age range to 50 for Māori and Pacific people is already being progressively introduced across the country and a national rollout will follow.

"Particularly in younger people, we don't often think about cancers and the impact it may have on your life but the important thing about bowel cancer is picking it up early, because if you pick it up early chances of successful treatment and survival are much higher," Dr McGarth said.

Agnew is encouraging people of all ages and ethnicities to consider testing before they're eligible.

Early detection ahead of her 60th birthday has given her an extra reason to celebrate.

"I'm not normally a person to have a party or celebrate things like that but absolutely will be this year because it could have been completely different."