Every year, some 3,000 New Zealanders are diagnosed with bowel cancer. Around 1,200 will die.
My Mum was one of them.
Mum was 56 when she died. It was a Friday evening on the 16th of November, 1990. My father, sister and I were at her side. I was 19 years old.
I remember the day Mum left us. I felt the most overwhelming sense of disbelief. She was gone. She had always been the sun in our family, and we all orbited around her. Now, our family’s light was gone, and in that moment, our lives all changed forever.
More than three long decades have passed since then, and this killer disease continues to wreak havoc on the lives of New Zealanders, robbing families of the people they love and need most in this world. It is now our second biggest cancer killer, but we haven’t funded a single new drug to treat bowel cancer in 20 years.
Back in 1990, we didn’t have the internet or any of today’s cancer awareness initiatives to educate us about the signs and symptoms of ill-health. If you wanted to know what was wrong with you, you went along to the family doctor.
Initially, the doctor and later the specialist, thought Mum might have a collapsed bowel. She had been having some issues with her lower abdomen, but she wasn’t someone who complained. Mum didn’t like to make a fuss, but the doctors thought a surgical procedure would be the best option.
She waited three months for surgery. In that time, all I remember is how careful we were with her. We had to be gentle when we moved or bathed her, but driving around Wellington was the worst. One little bump in the road could trigger a pain so great that Mum would cry out or wince.
The day finally arrived for Mum’s surgery, and she was admitted to Wellington Hospital. It was a big day for the four of us. Finally, Mum was going to have her operation and she could begin her journey to a full recovery. Mum was going to get better.
The doctors said they wanted to examine Mum first, so my sister and I waited with Dad. Hours and hours seemed to go by. Eventually, the medical team came back into the room.
They told us they wouldn’t be operating.
The three of us looked at each other, confused.
“What do you mean? You won’t be operating? Do you mean you won’t be operating today?”
No. They wouldn’t be operating on Mum. At all.
There was a 21cm tumour in Mum’s bowel and she had Stage Four Bowel Cancer. They said she could have been living with the disease for several years. There was secondary cancer on her liver and if they operated, they feared she would die in the theatre.
They told us there was nothing they could do. We could take her home, or Mum could go to a hospice for palliative care. We took her home.
The doctors couldn’t tell us how long Mum would survive. It could be months or perhaps only weeks. Mum got home and rang her closest friends and wrote letters to say her goodbyes. Three days after Mum was discharged from hospital, she passed away.
It’s been 31 years since Mum died and I have never stopped missing her. I am grateful I was old enough to know my Mum, but you lose so much when you lose your mum when you are so young.
I would give anything to be able to pick up the phone and talk to her. To ask her for advice, to laugh with her, to hear her tell me that everything is going to work out just fine, Carla. It will all be okay.
And Mum missed out on so much as well. She missed my sister’s wedding. Mine, too. She never knew the granddaughter she would have adored. She worked hard, lived modestly but with generosity, and was saving to travel in her retirement years. There was so much more that Mum and Dad wanted to do and see, but her life was cut so tragically short.
Today, medical science has given us an incredible opportunity to treat bowel cancer with life-saving or life-extending drugs. Drugs like Keytruda, Avastin and Cetuximab. Drugs that most developed nations are publicly funding but in New Zealand, we don’t fund them. They sit on our waitlist and Bowel Cancer has become just another chapter in New Zealand’s unfunded medicines crisis.
It is too late to save my Mum, but it is within our power to treat this awful disease.
It is within our power to stop other families from losing their ‘sun’. Mum, I miss you. I only had you for 19 years, but you were an amazing mother. I will always love you.