Let's talk about bowel cancer
A dedicated support group at Concord Hospital makes talking about bowel cancer a little easier
Michael Walsh is thankful for his new circle of friends.
“Bowel cancer is not something you talk about much, especially round the kitchen table. I had wonderful people who helped me - the medical people and my own family and friends - but it was still isolating.
“And then I found out about the support group at Concord Hospital. I can talk to other people about what it’s like to survive bowel cancer and talk about the issues that continue,” he said.
Australia has one of the highest rates of bowel cancer in the world. Advocacy group Bowel Cancer Australia says it’s the third most common type of newly diagnosed cancer in Australia.
Data shows more than 15 000 Australians are diagnosed with bowel cancer every year, including more than 1,400 people under the age of 50.
Michael is one of them.
“I can remember really clearly the day that I was diagnosed with bowel cancer. It was just overwhelming. I was fearful and anxious,” he said.
It was 2016 and Michael, 70, later had surgery at RPA hospital. He’d already had surgery for bladder cancer and later had surgery for pancreatic cancer.
But, it was the bowel cancer that really affected his day-to-day lifestyle.
As his recovery progressed, he joined the Bowel Cancer Support Group run by a dedicated team at the hospital.
It’s led by Colorectal Cancer Nurse Sonia Khatri who, along with Michael and one of the group’s facilitators, will showcase the role and benefits of belonging to the group at the Sydney Innovation and Research Symposium later this month. June is also Bowel Cancer Awareness Month.
“The group’s open to anyone diagnosed with bowel cancer at any point along their treatment pathway and recovery,” Sonia said.
“Quite often, a patient’s family and friends don’t fully understand the impact of the disease.
“Patients often find that the group bridges the gap between medical treatment and the need for emotional support,” she said.
The group meets at the Sydney Survivorship Centre Cottage, which is furnished in a homely way and is surrounded by gardens. It’s on hospital grounds but away from the main clinical buildings.
“People can just talk about what’s going on for them in a relaxed atmosphere. They can talk openly on any topic in a safe environment,” Sonia said.
The existence of the support group is evidence of a big shift in approach to the care of patients with cancer, medical oncologist Professor Janette Vardy said.
“We’re providing comprehensive cancer care.
“There’s been a shift from just treating the disease, ‘Here’s your chemotherapy. See you in three weeks,’ to providing integrated care which includes recognising the patient’s experience.
“And, there’s no doubt it makes a huge difference to patients,” she said.
Nurse Practitioner Ian Whiteley and Clinical Psychologist Sue Butler help facilitate the group’s discussions.
They organise education sessions where group members can learn about the management of their symptoms, healthy lifestyles and have their questions answered.
“We have guest speakers come and speak on a whole variety of different topics.
“We have a dietician come and speak about nutrition and cancer. We also have an exercise physiologist who has spoken about the benefits of exercise after having cancer,” Ian said.
Others include a medical oncologist, a colorectal surgeon and a meditation teacher.
The support group is open to carers too - as cancer can be a lonely experience not only for patients but their carers as well, Sue said.
“It is a stressful time in people’s lives. The feedback that we get is that people really like meeting other people who’ve been through similar experiences.
“You can even feel a really strong bond growing between members of the group.
“So, it’s really heart-warming to see people in the group just enjoying other people’s company. Even having a laugh together,” she said.
Michael agrees. “It’s just great to be with other people and share. We talk about all sorts of things… even about bowel movements. It’s really hilarious at times.
“The team have really helpful, especially with special issues that come up. I’d highly recommend it,” he said.
For more information about the group, contact Sonia on 02 9767 5943.
Sonia, Ian and Michael will speak about the Bowel Cancer Support Group at the Sydney Innovation and Research Symposium on Friday 28 June.
For more information, please see https://www.slhd.nsw.gov.au/innovationSymposium/default.html