colorful ribbons on pink background, cancer awareness, World cancer day

Here’s a fun fact: Hawke’s Bay’s most common garden-variety of cancer is bowel cancer, and it’s almost perfectly gender-balanced in its proportional weighting of female and male (exactly 75 of each diagnosed in HB in the year 2015 – MoH data).

Bowel, or colorectal cancer (CRC) is also known as the ‘silent killer’ (along with a string of other cancers, like ovarian) because it’s often symptomless until well-advanced. Or symptoms, like upset tummy or random pains or tiredness can be so easily explained away, and it’s all a bit embarrassing really to talk about. Our Kiwi prudishness and stoicism gets us there.

As a nation we’ve got high incidences of bowel cancer globally (with some 3,000 Kiwis diagnosed each year) and troubling stats on outcomes (we’re more likely to die of this than Australians), largely because we’re catching it too late. Because we’re not accessing diagnostic testing and timely, effective treatment. Because of systemic inequities. But also because we’re putting up with things that aren’t quite right, or our GPs – some – are missing the cues, or referrals don’t meet strict criteria.

Or because we think it’s a disease that affects only meat-eating, beer-drinking fat, older men.

Generally, New Zealanders have a low awareness of cancer risks beyond smoking and sun exposure, the government’s new Cancer Control Agency notes. Basically, you smoke, you get lung cancer; you get sunburnt, you get skin cancer. Our awareness is pinned to factors like individual, lifestyle choices, when cancer’s cause is often far more complex and entangled. And it’s something that can happen to anyone, at any age, whatever the odds.

This is something I’ve been exploring in the context of the healthcare system for my latest BayBuzz article, ‘Getting it Right on Cancer and Covid’ (issue #53, on the shelves next week), as we unpick our way back from Levels 4 & 3 to the new normal, and as surveillance and diagnostic testing (and more elective surgeries) crank up again.

Along with all the things to improve cancer care, like equitable and timely access to diagnostic services and to treatments, New Zealand’s Cancer Action Plan 2019-2029 acknowledges the “need to develop programmes to increase public awareness of possible signs and symptoms of cancer.”

June was Bowel Cancer Awareness month, an education campaign run by charity Bowel Cancer New Zealand, with its tagline, ‘Don’t sit on your symptoms’. And here’s what they say you should watch out for:

  • Blood in stools (often black) or from the rectum (bright red)
  • Change in bowel motions over several weeks
  • Anaemia
  • Persistent or periodic severe abdominal pain
  • A lump or mass in the abdomen
  • Tiredness and/or loss of weight for no obvious reason

Being aware of the symptoms is the first step you can take to prevent bowel cancer. Symptoms may come and go, so don’t wait if you have any of these concerns, no matter what age you are – see your GP. Or, if you’re not enrolled, any doctor.

Join the Conversation


  1. I’d be interested to know if the bowel screening programme, launched in HB in Oct 2018, is having an improvement in detection. Also this programme was suspended while labs were busy testing for covid. I don’t whether it has been reinstated in HB.

  2. Anemia was my only symptom of bowel cancer. My surgeon was livid it wasn’t caught earlier. He said all people Over 70 presenting with anaemia should immediately have a colonoscopy. I was very fortunate. Though I’d probably had the tumor for over 2 years it hadn’t metastasised, was in an easy place for removal and I didn’t require any follow up treatments like radiation, chemo or other medication. The surgeon felt all people over 60 should have colonoscopies.

  3. Just ask your doctor – I did and within a few months was called into the screening clinic where I also underwent bladder screening the same day – fantastic service and such a relief to have certainty that everything was A-OK.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.