Last updated: June 20, 2011

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Fight for life as cancer rates worsen

Karen McPherson

TRY EVERYTHING: Karen McPherson, 33, with daughters Bridgette, 4, and Lilly, 2, uses various treatments to fight bowel cancer. Picture: Glenn Barnes Source: The Courier-Mail

KAREN McPherson is part of a disturbing trend. The married mother of two little girls is one of a growing number of Australians aged under 34 years being diagnosed with bowel cancer.

She was 32 when told in April last year she had bowel cancer, which had spread to her liver.

"My oncologist told me in no uncertain terms that it couldn't be cured," she recalled.

"But I don't necessarily agree. I have a strong belief that things will get better. I still very much am fighting this."

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare data to be released today shows the incidence of bowel cancer in 20 to 34-year-olds between 2002 and 2006 was 64 per cent higher than between 1992 and 1996. That's more than five times the 12.3 per cent increase seen overall across all age groups.

Colorectal surgeon Graham Newstead suggests a jump in dietary fat and overall food intake among the younger generation may be partly to blame.

"Younger people are also at higher risk of a more aggressive form of the disease and some have a genetic background which predisposes them to a higher risk," Professor Newstead said.

But Ms McPherson, who is mum to Bridgette, 4, and Lilly, 2, has no family history of the disease. She has been a vegetarian for 15 years, does not smoke, drinks alcohol only occasionally and exercises.

"You have a picture in your mind of someone who gets bowel cancer so early as a person who has a shocking diet and is at McDonald's every day and never plays sport," she said. "It was so clearly not what I was."

The high school teacher from Beerwah, in the Sunshine Coast hinterland, went to her general practitioner after she started feeling exhausted and was having irregular bowel movements.

Blood tests revealed a problem with her liver.

After a colonoscopy and a CT scan, Ms McPherson was told she had advanced bowel cancer. She started chemotherapy the next day and continues to have the treatment for three days every second week.

Her bowel tumour was surgically removed recently after it had shrunk through chemotherapy but the secondary tumours in her liver have been deemed inoperable.

Along with conventional medical treatment, Ms McPherson flies to Sydney every fortnight to see a Chinese medicine specialist, who gives her acupuncture and a cocktail of herbal treatments. She also sees a naturopath weekly.

"I wasn't comfortable just doing the chemo. I felt I had to try everything," she said.

"I've told my oncologist everything I'm on. He doesn't really believe in it. But he doesn't stop me from taking it."

Her cancer specialist has not given her a prediction of her life expectancy and it's not something she wants to hear.

"I don't want him limiting my ability to fight this," she said.

"I want to see my daughters start school and graduate, I want to see them get married."

Cancer Council Queensland epidemiologist Joanne Aitken said that despite the sharp rise in the numbers of younger people developing bowel cancer, those under 35 still only made up about 1 per cent of cases.




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