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Personal cancer story

Mark Awburn

In March 2014, just after his 50th birthday, my husband Mark received a National Bowel Screening test kit in the mail. I didn't know much about the screening program, but when Mark asked me whether I thought he should do the test, I said "why not?"

Mark Awburn

I didn't think much of it at the time, but thank goodness he did the test – I'm pretty sure it ended up saving his life.

Up until this point we hadn't really thought about bowel cancer. We weren't aware of any family history and didn't have any reason to think that Mark was at risk.

A few weeks after we sent the test off, we received a letter advising that it had come back positive. The letter said that there could be a number of reasons for this, most of which didn't involve cancer, so we weren't too worried. We were told to follow-up with a GP just in case and they sent Mark for a colonoscopy.

During the colonoscopy the doctors discovered a polyp in Mark's bowel. I knew this was common enough but was surprised to learn that the surgeon had taken a biopsy rather than simply burning it off. This was the first sign that perhaps things weren't as straight forward as we had hoped.

Three days later, we received the call telling us that Mark had bowel cancer. After further tests, the doctors told us that they suspected it had been forming in his bowel for over five years and it might have spread to his lymph nodes. To say we were devastated is an understatement. The diagnosis was very difficult to accept and it all seemed very unreal. We had two young boys aged 9 and 12 and my husband was only 50 – he seemed too young!

It was recommended that Mark undergo radiation and chemotherapy prior to surgery to provide a better chance of complete recovery. However, he unfortunately developed an adverse reaction to the chemotherapy and so had discontinue this part of his treatment and continue with just the radiation.

It was a very stressful time for our family, but I had a lot of support from my relatives who helped us with caring for the kids. We always stayed positive and never really considered that Mark might not survive. When the kids asked if dad was going to die, I said he had cancer and he would have treatment, and he would be fine. And I believed that.

While Mark was undergoing radiation, I juggled caring for him with full-time work. We both work for the same organisation (I guess we do a lot together) and there are only a few staff in our office. With him off on sick leave I had to step into full-time work and help keep things running. He was very tired but fortunately there were no terrible side effects from his treatment at this stage.

In November 2014, on Melbourne Cup Day, Mark had colorectal surgery to remove the remaining cancer, which was probably the hardest part of his treatment for him to deal with. He had a part of his bowel removed and had an ileostomy put in place (a small hole in his abdomen) and had to use a colostomy bag.

The diagnosis was very difficult to accept and it all seemed very unreal."

Mark's partner

I didn't realise how major the surgery would be. Mark was in intensive care for a few days and could barely get out of bed. When he did, he was shuffling along like an old man. It was quite shocking. There's no doubt that having a colostomy bag was really hard for Mark, but I really admired the way he handled this independently.

We learnt from the doctors that as they feared, the cancer had spread to the lymph nodes. Following recovery from surgery, Mark underwent more chemotherapy to ensure that the cancer didn't return and to give him the best possible chance of survival. Despite my work commitments, I was determined to attend all of Mark's chemotherapy sessions with him. I felt quite helpless in a lot of ways and the least I could do was be with him when he was going through something so awful. During this time, Mark lost his appetite completely and lost about 15kgs. It was terrible to watch.

We were very lucky that after chemotherapy Mark was able to have his ileostomy reversed and no longer had to use a colostomy bag. It was a huge relief and the road back to normal began.

Mark is in remission now and has to have blood tests every three months and a CT scan once a year for five years. He had a colonoscopy one year after the surgery and a recent CT scan, both of which were all clear. I am confident that with all the treatment Mark had the cancer is now gone, but we can't be sure until five years have passed.

Mark is really well now, has regained weight and is back to his old self (with a few scars).

All I can say is thank God for that test. Without it Mark would have waited until he experienced symptoms to discover he had cancer, and by then it would have been more advanced and his prognosis would have been very different.

Everyone who is sent a bowel cancer screening test should do it, even if they don't have any symptoms. It's really easy to do and it could save your life.

As the partner of someone who received the test, please encourage your husband/wife to do it – no one likes talking about bowel cancer but you should do it for your family.

The key to beating bowel cancer is to find it early – by the time you have symptoms it might be too late.

Read more stories about people's personal experiences with cancer