When the letter came, it was almost chucked into the bin.
Nowadays, retired businessman Paddy O’Leary thanks his lucky stars that something made him read it.
If he hadn’t, he will tell you bluntly, he could well be dead by now.
It was May 2014 and Paddy was enjoying a leisurely breakfast at his home in Palmerstown, Dublin, when the letter from BowelScreen fell on to the mat.
The package it arrived in also contained a screening kit requiring him to take a small sample of his stool using the home test, place it in a special tube and send it back in a sealed envelope for testing in a laboratory.
“Normally it would have gone into the bin, but for some reason I decided it would be no harm to read the letter,” recalls Paddy (76). “I was never that focused on my health. I had never really been sick in any way – I used to be a heavy smoker but I gave up 40 years ago,” he recalls.
However, his decision to read that letter was prompted by the fact that another family member had cancer. “My older sister had had cancer some years ago so that made me more amenable to doing the test. I did the test and sent it off.”
A week later, the pensioner was driving away from the golf course where he regularly plays, when he received a phone call from a colorectal nurse at St James Hospital. “She explained who she was, and said not to panic,” he says. “She said there were traces of blood in the sample I had sent and that while it could be anything, they wanted to see me.”
A colonoscopy showed some abnormal results. It was followed by a battery of scans and tests. Paddy was eventually told he had 34 polyps on his colon, a number of which were beginning to turn cancerous. “I got quite a shock,” he says, adding that his wife Anne and eldest son Niall, who had arrived to collect him that day, were even more upset than he was when they heard the news. He now thinks he had gone into a state of shock on being told he needed surgery. “I had had no symptoms at all – I was not expecting this.”
He had the surgery in early June. “I’m a reasonably fatalistic guy. It had to be done, so I was going to do it,” he says. When the nurse came to measure him for a colostomy bag he was terrified, despite reassurances that this was merely precautionary. “The operation saw the removal of two-thirds of my colon, leaving me with 32 centimetres, or about 18 inches. Your colon is normally about six-feet long!”
After the operation the surgeon told him everything had gone very well, and Paddy would not require chemotherapy. “That was the first time I heard the word ‘chemo’ mentioned – chemo had never crossed my mind! That was such a relief. I was also pleased that I didn’t need a colostomy bag.”
However, his hospital stay to be extended for almost a fortnight. “My stomach shut down. I ended up with a lot of bile in my stomach and I had to have a procedure three days after the surgery.” That time was a difficult period during which he lost two stone in weight, he adds.
But that wasn’t the end of it – he then had to learn about diet. “When I got home I had to learn what foods I could eat. You find out pretty quick that there are certain foods you don’t eat anymore. It took me a few months to work out what I could digest and, for several months, I always made sure that I was close to a toilet.”
However, he says, it all settled down fairly quickly and he no longer has to worry about being constantly close to a loo. “I’m feeling very good. I’m 76 and still able to play golf.”
Paddy looks back on the whole process with relief. “I’m relatively religious and I honestly believe someone was praying for me. I have no doubt that if I hadn’t got that letter, I would be dead.
“I was blessed, absolutely blessed, that I was given the opportunity to do the test – and that I did it,” he says, adding that he wants to get the message about bowel screening across. “If just one person reacts to my story by doing this test it’s a big plus.”
Due to the coronavirus outbreak, bowel screening is paused for the moment. For more information visit the HSE's bowel screening page online. To donate to the Marie Keating Foundation, go to mariekeating.ie.
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The most frequently asked questions about bowel cancer, answered by Helen Forristal, director of nursing at the Marie Keating Foundation
How common is it and what are my chances of survival?
– Every year in Ireland more than 2,900 cases of bowel cancer are detected.
– It is the second most common cancer in males and the third most common in females, according to statistics published by the National Cancer Registry Ireland 2019.
– The five-year survival rate is 63 per cent if the problem is detected at an early stage, so be aware of the warning signs. And if you see them, take action immediately.
What signs of bowel cancer should I look out for?
– Blood in or on the stool
– Change in normal bowel habits such as diarrhoea or constipation with no obvious reason, which lasts longer than six weeks.
– Unexplained weight loss.
– Pain in lower abdomen or back passage.
– A sensation of not having emptied properly following a bowel motion.
However, it is important to note that bowel cancer is not the only disease that causes these symptoms, but it is important to be alert to them.
What does the screening involve?
– Launched in 2012, the screening programme for bowel cancer is carried out by the National Screening Service, supported by the Marie Keating Foundation.
– It is a quick, easy and free home test which can detect changes in the bowel before cancer develops.
– The kit is sent to the person's home. Any man or women between the age of 60 and 69 receives a BowelScreen kit and letter from the National Screening Service, offering the simple screening test. This test can detect changes in the bowel before cancer develops. Two days after that letter, a second letter – this one from the Marie Keating Foundation – will arrive. This letter emphasises the importance of doing the test.