Bowel cancer diagnosis ‘out of blue’


Three years ago this month, Dunedin woman Robyn McLeod (57) suffered a sudden health crisis – a frightening experience which ultimately saved her life.

“I had been away working in the tropics, so when I got really sick over a weekend, I thought it was something to do with that,” Ms McLeod said.

“It was just awful – I could not move for the pain.”

A close friend who came to take her children to play weekend sport was very concerned and eventually convinced her to phone an ambulance and go to hospital.

After X-rays and a scan, doctors told Ms McLeod that she required urgent surgery for bowel cancer.

“It was totally out of the blue, because I had had no symptoms at all, but it saved my life,” she said.

After surgery to remove two-thirds of her bowel, 10 days in Dunedin Hospital and six months of chemotherapy treatment, Ms McLeod was cleared of cancer.

She has high praise for the staff at Dunedin Hospital and oncologist Dr Chris Jackson for their kindness and top-quality care.

“Everyone was great – they looked after me so well.”

She continues to have regular check-ups, blood tests, scans and colonoscopies to monitor her condition.

“So far, so good – things have been fine.

“Although nowadays I know where every single toilet in Dunedin is, because things can happen quickly.”

The experience of suddenly being diagnosed with bowel cancer has made Ms McLeod a fervent advocate to friends and family of making time to become aware of their health.

And with a family history of bowel cancer – her father died of bowel cancer 17 years ago – she is very aware her children will also need to monitor their health from now on.

“We are all so busy trying to take care of other people and do our jobs and look after the house and so on, we don’t create enough space to really think about how we are feeling.

“As a mum with two kids, self-employed and with family responsibilities, I was always tired, but I thought nothing of it.

“You can become so exhausted that you can normalise things that should signal that you are not well.”

Ms McLeod, who now works for the Dunedin City Council, is open about her experience with friends, family and colleagues.

“It has been really helpful for me, in terms of the support I have had, but it’s also important to keep raising awareness out there.”


June is Bowel Cancer Awareness Month, and this year Bowel Cancer New Zealand (BCNZ) is highlighting the fact that bowel cancer can strike at any age.

BCNZ general manager Rebekah Heal said it was hoped the campaign would drive home to people how vital it was for everyone to know the symptoms of bowel cancer.

“Bowel Cancer New Zealand has been encouraging people not to sit on their symptoms for years, but with the rising incidence of bowel cancer in young people, it’s now more important than ever that people don’t die of embarrassment and go to their GPs immediately if they have concerns,” Ms Heal said.

Every year, more than 300 people under 50 are diagnosed with bowel cancer.

Symptoms include:

Bleeding from the bottom.

Change of bowel motions over several weeks that can come and go.

Persistent or periodic severe pain in the abdomen.

A lump or mass in the abdomen.

Tiredness and loss of weight for no particular reason.