How one habit can save your life

Everyone has secret little rituals and coded marks on the calendar as reminders, but some anniversaries come to mean much more than others. Nigel Wiggins, 75, 75, a retired high voltage linesman from Bega in NSW, has been taking part in the annual National Bowel Cancer Screening Program since it started, and this small yearly habit eventually saved his life. The positive test result was a surprise as there were no symptoms, but early intervention and treatment mean he’s as happy and active as he was pre-cancer.

DID YOU HAVE ANY BOWEL CANCER SYMPTOMS?

It knocked me over when I got the positive result. I thought, “Is this the end of the line?”, because I didn’t have any symptoms. I was still doing everything: riding a bike, walking on the beach, doing the vegetable garden.

I feel bloody lucky that I’m alive today for having done the test.

IS IT DIFFICULT TO DO THE FREE SCREENING TEST?

It’s so easy and so simple. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to do it. As soon as it would come, I would put it in the bathroom, do it the next morning and post it off.

I’m the sort of person if something is going to be done, I’m not going to leave it and forget all about it. If you put it in a drawer, it can be sitting there six months later, but if you put it on the toilet you think, “Geez, I better do it straightaway.”

WHAT HAPPENED AFTER YOUR POSITIVE TEST RESULT?

As soon as the positive test came back, I rang the doctor that afternoon. He referred me to a surgeon for a colonoscopy and I told them I wanted it done straightaway. After the colonoscopy, my surgeon didn’t have a happy look. She said, “We’ve got a problem (rectal tumour)” – and I asked, “Can we fix it?”

WHAT WAS YOUR TREATMENT PLAN?

I had a 10-hour operation to remove the tumour; it took longer than anticipated. The tumour was right in my rectum, way down low. It was only detected because of the screening test. I hadn’t felt anything.

I then went to the Icon cancer centre in Canberra, three hours’ drive from Bega, for radiation. For people in the bush, there’s no radiation options. They organised a late appointment for me on the Monday and an early one in the morning on Friday so I could be home by lunchtime on Friday. I was in Canberra for six weeks Monday to Friday for radiation and during that time I also had six weeks of chemo tablets, morning and night.

WHAT WAS RECOVERY LIKE?

It took about three months to get back to normal. It was quite quick. Before last Christmas, I had to see the oncologist, who told me the lymph nodes they removed were negative. I asked, “What do I do with these chemo tablets?” I was told to take them back to the chemist and get rid of them.

IS THERE FOLLOW-UP TREATMENT?

I’m cancer-free. I had a full body scan a month ago and I do blood tests every three months.

ARE THERE ANY RECURRING SYMPTOMS OR ISSUES?

I’m bloody tremendous, but I do have a stoma. My bowel has been reorganised in as much as my backside is sewn up because of the lymph nodes and I have this bag on my side. It’s no big deal, I change it twice a week and empty it when it feels right.

WHAT WOULD YOU SAY TO PEOPLE WHO ARE AFRAID OF HAVING TO GET A STOMA?

The bag is not the be all and end all. I can do anything I like – I can even go in the ocean with the bag. It fits under my clothes, no one knows it’s there and when I go into the ocean there’s an extra strap under my rashie in case you get hit by a big wave. It doesn’t stop you leading a normal, active life.

It’s better to have a bag than be in a bag.

DO YOU STILL HAVE TO TEST REGULARLY?

I’m 75 now, so that all stops with the at-home test. I still have to have colonoscopies. I asked how they would do that, my backside is sewn up, but they said they can still get in there.

WHAT’S YOUR ADVICE TO THOSE WHO ARE HESITANT ABOUT DOING THE FREE BOWEL SCREENING TEST?

As soon as it comes in the mail, put it on the toilet and do it. It’s so important to bloody well do it – it could save your life. It saved mine.

Cancer Council and the Australian Government Department of Health are urging Australians aged 50 – 74 to Get2it and participate in the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program. For more information visit cancer.org.au

Originally published as Free, easy DIY test in the privacy of your own home catches cancer