Councils take proactive steps to protect employees from silent killer

Published: 20th September 2022

Melissa Laan was only in her mid-30s when she was diagnosed with bowel cancer—something often thought of as an old man’s disease.

The Central Highlands Regional Council senior health advisor had been suffering a range of vague symptoms—fatigue, anaemia and dehydration—for some time prior to her diagnosis, but the mum-of-five put it down to being stressed and run down.

“For a long time, I'd passed off all the symptoms because there was nothing super specific about it,” Melissa said.

“They'd done tests for me to see if I had Coeliac’s; they told me to do a low FODMAP diet and things like that. But eventually after I caught a number of presentations, they were like, ‘Oh, well look, you should get along for a colonoscopy’.”

Even then, Melissa faced a possible six month wait for the procedure in the public system. However, a bowel obstruction shortly afterwards ramped up the urgency. From there, it was a colonoscopy, MRI, CT scan, and a phone call telling her she needed to go to Brisbane to see a colorectal surgeon, who ended up removing what he said was the second-biggest tumour he’d ever seen.

Despite a successful removal with clean margins—meaning she didn’t need to undergo chemotherapy—Melissa developed severe post-operative complications, requiring her to be airlifted to Brisbane from Emerald by the Royal Flying Doctor Service. After becoming septic from ruptured peritonitis, she woke up in the ICU on a breathing tube. 

Prior to her cancer diagnosis, Melissa had worked in health for eight years, but after her own month as a patient, wasn’t keen to return to the hospital setting. Instead, she decided to take a leap and use her own experience to raise awareness of bowel cancer and applied for a role with the Council.

“It was just perfect timing that I was a bit a bit under challenged in my other role,” she said..

“And then this one came up, so I thought, ‘Oh look, it's a bit of a stretch but let me put my hat in the ring’.

“I want to be really actively involved in health promotion. I want to look after people. I want to prevent things from going wrong.

“It's really been a fantastic opportunity with a big employer like council to reach so many people and to be able to offer health promotion.

“Bowel cancer is so easily treated if it's caught early.”

With Melissa’s advocacy, the Central Highlands Regional Council bought 60 kits to give away to those who wanted to avoid what she had experienced. Even if one person is saved from early-onset bowel cancer, Mel has given the gift of life to her fellow staff and will save the council thousands of dollars in lost productivity and transition back to work costs.

Rotarian and bowel cancer survivor Tony Wills says he owes his life to a home screening kit—and he’s dedicated to spreading awareness of this disease which kills 5,000 Australians every year.

“That's what's so insidious about this thing,” Tony said.

“Unlike toothache, you’ve got this time bomb ticking away and it's not saying a word; it's telling you nothing.”

Tony, who lost a cousin to bowel cancer, had been taking the Rotary Bowelscan tests each year and returning negative results.

“In 2015, we went to Europe, got back and lo and behold within a week of getting back there was a kit sitting in the letter box,” he said.

“I thought, ‘Well, why not? They've all come back with the thumbs up till now’. And about three months later, back came a letter saying that I had a positive result and therefore I needed to have a colonoscopy.

“And then I got the news, ‘I'm sorry, but you've got a bowel cancer’.”

Fortunately for Tony, his cancer was caught at stage 2. Had he not received the kit from the Federal Government, he would have waited until May or June the following year, and his cancer likely would have progressed.

Each year from April through July, Rotary Bowelscan Queensland distributes discounted bowel cancer testing kits to local communities and encourages Australians most at risk—those aged over 40—to take the annual test.

As well as Central Highlands, Rockhampton Regional Council, Banana Shire Council, Noosa Shire Council and Toowoomba Regional Council have bought kits for their staff as well.

“Ten per cent of all bowel cancers are in people under 50. They call it an old person's disease; it is anything but,” Tony said.

“If you think about all the cancers, there's a slogan out there—you know, ‘Slip, Slop, Slap’ for skin cancer, or ‘Think Pink’ for breast cancer.

“But there's nothing for bowel cancer, and bowel cancer is a topic that a lot of people don't want to talk about, particularly over the dining room table.”

If your organisation wants to help prevent bowel cancer, get in touch with Rotary Bowelscan Queensland.