When Tom O’Keeffe got a letter in the post in April last year offering a free bowel screen, he thought “I’ll fly through this”.
The 63-year-old father of three, who lives with his wife Mabel in Carrignavar, Co Cork, never had any bowel trouble.
“The test itself was very simple and only took a few minutes to complete. I posted my test and waited for a reply, thinking this was just a formality,” Tom said.
He received his results fairly promptly and was shocked to learn that a small amount of blood had been discovered.
“In the accompanying letter, I saw the words ‘don’t worry’ and immediately went into a panic.” Tom then got a call from a nurse in BowelScreen, the national bowel screening programme.
Understandably anxious, he asked how long it would take to have a colonoscopy done. Two weeks later he underwent the diagnostic test. A polyp (abnormal growths of tissue that can turn cancerous) was removed and sent for analysis.
Tom subsequently got a call from Emmet Andrews, consultant general and colorectal surgeon at Cork University Hospital, who arranged for more tests. When Tom met Mr Andrews in July, he was told part of his colon would have to be removed but that the cancer had been detected early and had not spread.
“When I heard the word cancer, it sent shivers through me.
“When the doctor is explaining to you the plan of action, you just hear the word ‘cancer’ — it is very hard to take anything else in or to ask questions,” Tom said.
His surgery took place in August amid fears he may need a stoma, a pouch to collect intestinal waste.
But he found reassurance on the golf course. “I enjoy a few rounds of golf at my local golf club in Fermoy. Up until my own diagnosis I hadn’t realised that one of the men in the club was actually wearing a stoma.
“He spoke to me and reassured me. Men do talk to each other, when we’re on the golf course,” Tom said.
Fortunately for Tom, keyhole surgery went well and he didn’t require a stoma. Nor did he require chemotherapy or radiation treatment. He was back playing golf last October.
“I am so grateful for BowelScreen. I’d strongly advise everyone to do the simple test. It’s so easy and it can save your life.”
Tom took the decision to tell his story publicly in order to encourage others to take the test.
As part of Men’s Health Week, which runs from today until June 19, the HSE is urging men aged 60 to 69 to do the simple home test when given the opportunity.
Professor Diarmuid O’Donoghue, clinical lead for BowelScreen, said the first round of screening had led to 401 people being diagnosed with a bowel cancer despite having no symptoms.
“Many of these will be cured by surgery alone or surgery and some chemotherapy,” Prof O’Donoghue said.
“Perhaps more encouragingly, over half of all people with a positive FIT [faecal immunochemical test] have had polyps removed from their bowel. Many of these individuals would have gone on to develop bowel cancer in the months and years to come.”
Bowel cancer is currently the second most common cause of cancer death in Ireland, about 1,000 of colorectal cancer patients die from the disease.
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