By Mick Jensen
Fiona Cullen was denied a colonoscopy twice despite showing all the signs of bowel cancer, but far from angry, she is keen to see bowel cancer “normalised” and more screening provided for all ages.
The Tinwald mum had many of the classic symptoms of bowel cancer when she first approached her doctor in April 2015, including anaemia, weight loss and rectal bleeding, but her request for a colonoscopy was declined.
Fifteen months later, and with intermittent bleeding again, she turned to a different doctor who strongly supported her case, but again she was turned down.
With more advocacy from her doctor and now pregnant, Fiona’s case was further strengthened by support from her midwife and obstetrician. At 30 weeks she was finally seen by a specialist and diagnosed with bowel cancer.
Her “amazing gift” and healthy son Morgan was delivered at 32 weeks by Caesarean, but she faced the “ultimate challenge” of beating the cancer and a massive tumour.
“An earlier colonoscopy would still have shown the cancer and meant likely radiation treatment, but there probably wouldn’t be a Morgan here today.
“But it is the pathway to getting that colonoscopy that has been so disappointing to me throughout this hard journey,” said Fiona Cullen.
She wanted to see national guidelines and clinical pathways changed so that her colonoscopy experience was not repeated by others.
“It was not said in so many words, but one of the key drivers in turning me down for a colonoscopy, I believe, was my age. I was 38 the first time and deemed too young to be a high risk for bowel cancer, despite all of my symptoms.
“Bowel cancer is the second most common cancer in New Zealand and anyone can get it.”
Fiona said she wanted health boards to acknowledge that the process for colonoscopy referrals was not working and needed to change.
“Younger people are being left out and potentially put at risk when its comes to screening because the emphasis is very much on those in the higher age group bracket. We need to ‘normalise’ bowel cancer and put more effort into encouraging more people to get checked, regardless of age.”
After undergoing chemotherapy treatment, Fiona’s tumour was deemed small enough to take it away.
But that good new was tainted by more bad news, with an MRI revealing the cancer had spread to four spots on her lungs.
She is undergoing more chemotherapy, eating as healthily as she can and trying a number of holistic options as she fights to beat her cancer.
The tumours have receded, but Fiona’s life and health remain very uncertain.
“I’ve got every reason to live – I’ve got Morgan.
“I don’t believe in giving up, even if the doctors say so, because I’m a fighter.”
Fiona Cullen aims to proves the doctor wrong in their diagnosis that she has two to five years to live.
She has more treatment ahead, and also a holiday to Cairns planned, where she and Morgan will spend plenty of time splashing in the pool.