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Your Health

Cork Man Bernard Wallace on surviving Bowel Cancer

A free, simple home bowel screening test saved the life of Co Cork father-of-four Bernard Wallace and he is now urging people to take part in the programme. Bernard, a retired painter and decorator, was told by his oncologist that he would be dead if his cancer had not been detected at an early stage by the test.

Under the HSE’s BowelScreen programme, men and women aged 60 to 69 can avail of free bowel screening tests that can be done at home. All they have to do is take a small swab from a stool on a piece of toilet paper and return it in the enclosed stamp addressed envelope.

The bowel screening test does not tell you if you have bowel cancer but it might tell you that you need more tests; these tests can detect pre-cancerous or cancerous changes.

“The tests came to our house, one for myself and one for Anita, my wife. I followed the instructions and sent it back off without really giving it a second thought,” explains 68-year-old Bernard, from Ballyphehane, Co Cork. 

“The test itself is very simple. I know people might wonder about it but you take the tiniest little swab. Everybody should do it.” However, within a week of Bernard sending back the test, he got a phone call asking him to come into the Mercy University Hospital in Cork where doctors explained that the test showed that he needed more tests. He was then sent to Cork University Hospital (CUH) for more tests, including a colonoscopy.

A colonoscopy is a detailed examination of the bowel using a small camera on the end of a thin flexible tube. The test looks for any changes or signs of disease in the lining of the bowel.

Bernard praises the staff at both hospitals whom he describes as “fantastic and a great support” during the very stressful time.

With BowelScreen, 95pc of people will have a normal home test result and invited to take the test again two years later. “Anita originally didn’t do the test but she did when I got my result back. She was clear thankfully. But you can’t assume that everything is alright just because you have no symptoms,” he says.

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Bowel cancer is Ireland’s second deadliest cancer but it is highly preventable and treatable if diagnosed early. Bernard says that, apart from treatment for prostate cancer in 2008, he always had good health and the cancer diagnosis was unexpected. There is no history of it in his family and he hadn’t detected any changes in his bowel movements.

“Within a couple of months, I had the operation to remove the cancer. The doctor thought the cancer might be taken out through keyhole surgery but in the end, I had to have open surgery. Afterwards, everything was explained to me. A little part of the bowel had been taken out. It was caught in time so I didn’t have to have chemotherapy or radiotherapy.”

Bernard says having to have a stoma bag attached to his body was the hardest part of his cancer experience. It connected to his body with tubes to allow the waste from his bowel to go into it.

“I had that bag for 21 months. Being kind of young, I found it easy to adapt to. Everyone who uses a stoma bag has a few mishaps. You have to put a mirror in front of you when you’re changing the bag. If you’re patient with it from the start, it becomes fairly natural after a while,” he says.

Since his surgery, Bernard has become more health conscious. He plans to do more walking and watches his diet, eating a lot more white meat, such as chicken, than red meat.

“Strangely enough, I’m not allowed eat much brown bread, just white bread. I used to get gout but I haven’t had it for a while. I love fruit such as apples and oranges but the acid in them aggravates the gout. I just have an odd apple or orange. I take a drink, a beer or a glass of wine or maybe a pint of stout occasionally.”

Bernard now goes for regular check-ups and will be having an MRI soon. He urges people to avail of the bowel screening test as it certainly saved his life.

Professor Padraic MacMathuna, Clinical Director of BowelScreen, says: “Bowel cancer is a big killer in Ireland. On average, over 2,700 people are diagnosed with it each year in Ireland and over 1,000 lives are lost. But the good news is that bowel cancer is one of the most preventable and treatable types of cancer.

"Bowel screening, through a simple home test, can detect abnormal changes which can develop into cancer over time. These changes often have no signs or symptoms.

“However, if they are caught at an early stage through screening, there are more treatment options and a higher chance of survival. That’s why screening is so important.”

He adds that the home test, for men and women, is non-invasive. However, only 40pc of people take part in the programme, with a lower proportion of men than women.

For a small number of people, the test might result in a referral for a further test; a colonoscopy. About half of these colonoscopies detect and remove pre-cancerous growths, preventing bowel cancer from developing. Professtor MacMathuna  says that BowelScreen’s latest figures show how the programme is saving lives. To date, it has detected 718 cancers and removed almost 19,000 pre-cancerous growths or polyps.

For more information on BowelScreen, or to check that you are on the register to receive an invitation, call Freephone 1800 45 45 55 or visit www.bowelscreen.ie.