As a general practitioner in the regional town of Shepparton, Graeme Jones had a lot of experience dealing with other people's health issues.
He regularly diagnosed, prescribed and referred patients for their ailments – everything from the joy of pregnancies, to the frustrations of colds and flus and the often heartbreaking, serious, life-threatening diseases.
Dr Jones never thought much about his own health – he was busy with his practice, his family and his personal interests, such as bushwalking and gardening. That was until, a few weeks after his 65th birthday, he received a package in the mail.
It was a package that would change his life and his focus from the health of his patients to his own survival.
The package contained a faecal occult blood test (FOBT) – a bowel cancer screening test the Federal Government posts out to men and women aged 50, 55 and 65 as part of the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program.
He took the test at home, receiving his results soon after, which found he had blood in his bowel motion, one of the symptoms of bowel cancer. The results meant a trip to the local hospital to get a colonoscopy to take a closer look at what might be causing the bleeding.
"I was very miffed to get a positive report. Being a GP I rationalised this as being a false positive, did not worry unduly, and got on with my work prior to my colonoscopy," Dr Jones said.
"The colonoscopy revealed an asymptomatic cancer (a cancer with no symptoms) in my lower bowel."
A week later, Dr Jones became a patient, undergoing surgery and six months of chemotherapy for stage-3 cancer.
"Had I not done the FOBT I would almost certainly be facing an incurable, metastatic cancer, instead of being, hopefully, cured."
Dr Jones said he was blessed to have received his FOBT in the mail. "To say I was lucky is an understatement, I am extraordinarily lucky to have gotten the test kit when I did."
He's now a passionate campaigner – raising awareness of the need for men and women to screen for the cancer once they reach the age of 50 and to take an FOBT every two years. "Most people aren't aware that bowel cancer is the second biggest cancer killer of men and women in Australia. What's more, in 90 per cent of cases, bowel cancers can be cured if found in the early stages."
Graeme wants to warn those over 50 not to be complacent – as there are no symptoms in the early stages of bowel cancer. "I had no symptoms and no family history of cancer – my family have died from either old age or heart disease. I was very fit and healthy and ate well. My only risk factor was that I was older than 50," he said.
Dr Jones said he encouraged older Victorians to lower their risk of cancer by staying fit, eating a balanced diet and maintaining a healthy weight.
People wanting to find out more about FOBTs and bowel cancer can visit www.cancervic.org.au/fobt/default.asp or call the Cancer Council Helpline on 13 11 20.
The Cut your cancer risk team is joining Cancer Council Australia's Get Behind Bowel Screening campaign. Like Graeme, we want to ensure all Australians aged 50 and older receive a free FOBT in the mail every two years. The Federal Government currently funds a National Bowel Cancer Screening Program for men and women aged 50, 55 and 65, but this misses many age groups that should be offered the opportunity to screen. Bowel screening saves lives. To find out more and lend your support visit www.getbehindbowelscreening.com.au