A bowel cancer survivor says a campaign to encourage more Māori and Pasifika to get screened for the disease is a step in the right direction to lowering the death toll.
A campaign has been launched to focus on increasing uptake among Māori and Pacific people between the ages of 60 and 74.
More than 835,000 New Zealanders are eligible for the screening, but only about half are taking up the free, at-home screening.
Patrick Loloma Afeaki lost his wife in 2013. He said she was unaware she had cancer until it was too late.
“She was taken to the hospital, she didn’t know until it was too late… She was told that it’s already spread to her liver and most of the organs and that she was already on stage four,” Afeaki said.
Five years later, he himself was diagnosed with bowel cancer in its early stages.
“I was looking to see what causes cancer and what symptoms that you could detect, when that happens. And I realised that in early 2018 I had blood in my bowel motions, and I knew that there was a symptom of bowel cancer.
“I immediately told my family doctor who referred me to the hospital… I was given colonoscopy and they removed 24 polyps and one of them had cancer in it,” Afeaki said.
He then had four rounds of chemotherapy – and said he was lucky it had not yet spread to other parts of his body.
He was at a campaign launch on Auckland’s North Shore on Wednesday morning, saying it was important to make the conversation about bowel cancer screening more acceptable and less taboo.
“It’s a matter of educating people and listening to their whānau. Mum and dad were from the Islands, their children were born here. Mum and dad will listen to their children, their children [don’t] want to lose them,” he said.
Bowel cancer is the second-highest cause of cancer death in New Zealand, a country which has some of the highest rates of bowel cancer in the world.
More than 1200 people die from the disease every year, most of them Māori and Pasifika.
The screening programme is available across the whole country, and has detected over 1400 cancers and thousands of pre-cancerous polyps since it began in 2017. But its uptake could be wider.
The head of the Māori Health Authority, Riana Manuel, said at-home bowel screening could help save hundreds of lives.
“One of the biggest problems we have is that because we often present so late in the piece, that’s the reason why our prognosis is usually very poor. So if you put that into a context of those preventable deaths, 25 percent of them will be wāhine Māori and about 10 percent tāne Māori. So we’ve got a lot of work to do and it’s a reason to get motivated,” she said.
Wednesday’s campaign launch followed a government budget announcement that the screening age for Māori and Pacific people would be lowered from 60 to 50, starting with trials in Waikato and Tairāwhiti, then nationwide by July next year.
Associate Minister of Health Peeni Henare said the move to lower the age would help save more lives.
“This is an important step towards addressing a health inequity, as a higher proportion of Māori and Pacific people get bowel cancer before they become eligible for screening at age 60.”
More than $36 million will go towards the four-year shift that the government estimates will make an extra 60,000 people eligible for screening each year.
Henare said early detection was crucial in helping prevent further deaths
“People who are diagnosed with early-stage bowel cancer have a 90 per cent chance of long-term survival if they get timely treatment. Making sure our whānau access bowel screening means more of our mothers, fathers, aunties and uncles enjoying a life that would otherwise have been cut tragically short.”