Health: Get advice on bowel cancer

Alex Kuczera.
Alex Kuczera.
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MOST people will simply accept what their doctor tells them. But not Alex Kuczera.

When he was diagnosed with bowel cancer at the age of 41 he was told that he would have treatment but would have to have a stoma for life.

He knew that having a stoma – an artificial opening in the abdomen to collect waste, which goes into a bag outside the body - was a possibility but he wanted to know whether that had to be permanent. He was told that due to the location of the tumour, it did.

However Alex wasn’t prepared to accept that prospect without investigating further.

Because he was covered by Bupa healthcare, he did his own research and went to see a Harley Street doctor. Through that he ended up going to a clinic in Basingstoke and seeing consultant colorectal surgeon Brendan Moran.

Mr Moran thought there was a good chance he could operate in such a way that Alex would only have to have a stoma for the months after the operation, not permanently.

Following radiotherapy, surgery, and aggressive chemotherapy, he has just had the stoma reversed and is recovering well.

Now he is determined to make more people, especially those under 50, aware of how important watching for symptoms is.

“I am quite open about both my illness and treatment, as this has helped me get through this ordeal. I appreciate that for some it probably something that they do not wish to talk about, but the point that I would like to get across is the awareness element and for people to pursue their GPs for early testing. If I was offered that option I may not have to have undergone the extensive treatment.

“I am one of the lucky ones in that my condition was treatable, for some the news is not so great.”

Alex, from Roundhay, Leeds, first noticed a change in his bowel movements but initially his symptoms were put down to Irritable Bowel Syndrome – because of his age, he was not in a high-risk group for cancer.

“If I had been 55 I would probably have been sent for tests, but at the time I was only 40,” he said.

However when he went for a Bupa healthcare a test showed something wrong and he was sent for a colonoscopy. By this time he had also suffered some severe symptoms and thought there must be something seriously wrong.

The systems availability manager for Lloyds Banking Group said he was “numb” when he was diagnosed with cancer.

His cancer was at early stage 3 and though he was initially told he would need a lifelong stoma, his persistence led him to a doctor with a different view.

“I have never cried, I’ve never got angry, I’ve just treated it like a project,” he said.

“I got the best possible prognosis I could get and the best possible treatment plan that’s available to me.”

In April last year he began radiotherapy at St James’s Hospital in Leeds in order to shrink the tumour. If it didn’t shrink enough, the stoma would need to be permanent.

The treatment did shrink the cancer and in September he underwent open surgery in Basingstoke and then recovered at home.

His 18 weeks of chemotherapy began in November in Leeds and Alex found this gruelling.

But he coped and a few weeks ago was back in Basingstoke to have his stoma removed, the last step in his current treatment journey. He said he was looking forward to getting some normality back in his life and was aware of how fortunate he had been.

“It was stage 3 – if it had got to stage four, I’m not sure what the outcome would have been,” he said.

Alex, who said he was also grateful for the support from friends, his employers and the medical team, is aiming to encourage others of all ages to become more aware of bowel cancer symptoms.

“We need to get the message across that if you think you have got symptoms, get them checked out.”

Telltale signs include bleeding from the bottom, blood in your stools, a change in bowel habit lasting four weeks or more, extreme tiredness, unexplained weight loss and lumps or pains in the abdomen.

He said he was shocked at a study by Cancer Research UK and Yorkshire Cancer Research which showed massive variations in death rates following surgery for bowel cancer at English hospitals. Overall, mortality rates are far worse than those in the US, Canada and Scandinavia. Yorkshire Cancer Research Centenary Professor of Pathology Phil Quirke, who is based at the Leeds Institute of Molecular Medicine at the University of Leeds, is about to launch a series of surgical masterclasses.

These will show surgeons how to perform a technique used in Germany and Japan for colon cancer, where five year survival is far higher than in the UK.

He said: “We hope to see this technique become mainstream surgical procedure in hospital theatres across the country to help drive down the significant variation in bowel cancer death rates in our NHS hospitals.”

* Yorkshire surgeons interested in taking part in the masterclasses should email: p.quirke@leeds.ac.uk

Clockwise from top left, Lancashire hot pot, toad in the hole, liver and onions, potted shrimp, bubble and squeak and Kedgeree could all soon be consigned to the history books.

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