Screen to stay healthy: regular screening saves lives says bowel cancer survivor Jill Gallagher
Jill Gallagher AO, a proud Gunditjmarra woman, was working in a busy job, raising a family and contributing to her community when she discovered she had bowel cancer.
Having survived after extensive treatment, Jill is urging all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to keep an eye out for the free bowel screening test in the mail and do it as soon as they receive it.
“If you use one of these free tests, you are more likely to catch bowel cancer early,” says Jill.
Jill was aged 54 when she visited her GP about ongoing fatigue she was experiencing.
“I had just put the tiredness down to being overworked and juggling a lot in life and community,” Jill said.
Following a series of tests, Jill was diagnosed with Stage 4 bowel cancer, requiring two separate operations to remove a section of her bowel, part of her liver and other growths discovered on her diaphragm during surgery.
“It was very unexpected, and I was surprised,” admits Jill.
“I remember receiving papers at the hospital that included information about end-of-life treatment. I was not only shocked and confused, but also scared. I just didn’t know what it all meant,” Jill said.
Jill underwent another 6 months of chemotherapy before receiving good news from doctors – they believed they had removed the cancer. She was still required to undertake further monitoring procedures every two years for the ten years that followed.
Bowel cancer is Australia’s second biggest cancer killer and one of the most common cancers impacting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. If found early, over 90% of bowel cancers can be successfully treated.
The National Bowel Cancer Screening Program provides free at-home test kits for people aged 50-74 years old, every 2 years.
Jill had no known family history of bowel cancer and had never completed a self-screening test.
“I have been lucky in many ways to have caught it and treated it. But at the same time, it brings me great sadness for other mob whose experience with cancer has not been as lucky. An experience of cancer to any extent weighs heavily on your mental health, and it really impacts the whole family,” said Jill.
Jill understands firsthand that there are often little to no signs or symptoms of bowel cancer.
“That’s why regular screening is so important. Bowel cancer affects everyone differently, and noticeable symptoms aren’t always present. The bowel cancer screening test kit can pick up pre-cancerous signs that help with early detection,” said Jill.
Had Jill have completed a self-test kit when she was first eligible at 50, her cancer would have been picked up earlier, when it was easier to treat.
“The test is nothing compared to what you could end up having to deal with. You can avoid needing a colostomy bag and you can avoid death if you get it early. And importantly, you can enjoy more time with family,” encourages Jill.
“It’s important we have conversations about preventing cancer, as a family, as a community, and without shame. It’s important to look after ourselves – we need to screen to stay healthy,” said Jill.
For more information about the benefits of bowel cancer screening visit www.indigenousbowelscreen.com.au.
For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 50-74 who want to order a new or replacement bowel screening kit, contact the National Cancer Screening Register by visiting www.ncsr.gov.au or call 1800 627 701. Health professionals can also order a kit on their patients’ behalf.