Daffodil Day: 'I got a feeling, completely out of the blue, that I needed to get myself checked out'
Bowel cancer survivor Michael O'Donoghue is urging anyone showing suspicious symptoms to avail of a free screening service
You couldn't put it any other way. Postman Michael O'Donoghue saved his own life through little more than a hunch.
In the early winter of 2010, Michael - who is now 66 and retired - was recovering from a severe chest infection which had put him off work for two weeks. He was driving to an appointment with his GP for a check-up before returning to his job when an unexpected thought crossed his mind.
"I got the feeling, completely out of the blue, that I needed to get myself checked out - and in fact, that I should get a colonoscopy," he recalls. Michael, from Pallasgreen, Co Limerick, says that up to that moment he hadn't experienced the slightest concern about his health.
At his request, his doctor scheduled an appointment for a colonoscopy. A few hours after Michael had the examination, he was informed that he had a tumour on his bowel.
It was a frightening moment - bowel cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer and the second most common cause of cancer death in Ireland.
"I got a fright," Michael recalls, adding, "The doctor told me, however, that it had been detected very early."
His consultant later reassured him that the tumour had not spread outside the bowel.
Michael had an operation to remove the tumour that November. His oncologist told him he had been very lucky: "He said I didn't need to have any treatment but that if I wanted, I could get chemotherapy as a form of insurance."
He opted for the chemotherapy and since then his regular annual check-ups have been clear.
Michael feels incredibly lucky that he made the decision to have that colonoscopy on nothing more than a hunch - but the retiree, who has travelled to Lourdes as a pilgrimage helper every year for the past 34 years, also reveals that he suspects some divine intervention may have been involved.
"People have said to me that it was Our Lady of Lourdes looking after me. Someone was definitely looking after me anyway," he quips.
Michael adds that he strongly believes people should avail of the routine screening provided by BowelScreen, the national bowel cancer screening programme, which began in 2013. The government-funded service delivered by the National Cancer Screening Service is offered to men and women aged between 60 and 69.
"Early detection saved my life," adds Michael, who will be holding a coffee day in aid of the Irish Cancer Society at his home in Pallasgreen from 10am to 10pm on Daffodil Day, this Friday, March 24.
The earlier bowel cancer is detected, the better the outcome for the patient, emphasises Professor Seamus O'Reilly, Medical Oncologist at Cork University Hospital and Associate Professor of Medicine at University College Cork.
"That's why we have a screening programme," says Professor O'Reilly, who previously served on the medical committee of the Irish Cancer Society and currently acts as chairperson of the Board of Trustees of Cork ARC Cancer Support House, an affiliate of the Society.
The average age of colon cancer patients in Ireland is 71, he says, so screening people at 60 detects problems at an early stage. This in turn means cancer will not have time to spread from the bowel, and the patient will ultimately require less treatment.
However, there is a strong element of embarrassment about the condition, says Professor O'Reilly, who explains that symptoms can include blood in the stool or changed bowel habit, as well as abdominal pain, or anaemia (low red blood cell count).
"People are often reluctant to present for medical attention because of the symptoms. These are not pleasant things to discuss because there is an embarrassment about them," he says, adding that if you suspect that you have warning signs, you must see your GP.
"Early intervention leads to better outcomes," he emphasises. "That's why the screening programme is so important - it saves lives."
Embarrassment about reporting symptoms and a general lack of awareness about the condition is a problem, agrees Joan Kelly, cancer support manager with the Irish Cancer Society (ICS).
"We feel that promoting greater awareness out there about bowel cancer is very important. People don't often know a lot about how their body works and sometimes symptoms can be attributed to something else," she says.
"The vagueness of some of the symptoms, such as a change in bowel habit, can be a problem."
In fact, she warns, just under 50pc of the people diagnosed with bowel cancer are at the more advanced stages of the disease.
In an effort to counteract the lack of public awareness about the condition, the ICS is launching a month-long campaign about bowel cancer on April 1. The campaign will be run through social media and via special Awareness Stands at the society's 13 Daffodil Centres around the country.
"We will be talking to people about the early warning signs and encouraging them to seek advice and take action where necessary," adds Joan.
The society will also be launching a special Bowel Health Checker, which is a series of questions with information designed to alert people to their symptoms.
It's certainly worth checking out any suspicious symptoms - bowel cancer is the most common cancer diagnosed in Ireland, with an estimated 2,500 people diagnosed every year.
Around 1,000 people die from the disease annually.
Cure rates are increasing year on year for colon cancer, as with other forms of cancer, says Professor O'Reilly, but he emphasises that people also need to be aware of prevention strategies:
"Cigarette smoking accounts for one in four cancers in Ireland and obesity for one in six. Both of these are associated with colon cancer. It's important to emphasise that smoking and obesity are the two big drivers of the condition," he warns, noting that another concern is the growing scarcity of nursing staff.
"This is impacting on all aspects of cancer care, including the delivery of cancer surgery," he adds. It has been predicted, Professor O'Reilly says, that by 2020 there will be a shortfall of one million health care workers in the EU and 50pc of those will be nurses.
For more information visit cancer.ie. The Irish Cancer Society's 30th Daffodil Day takes place on Friday, March 24. Hold an event, volunteer or buy a daffodil and raise vital funds to support people affected by cancer. Thousands of volunteers all around the country will be selling daffodils. You can buy a daffodil or make a donation by visiting www.cancer.ie, calling CallSave 1850 60 60 60 or texting 'Daff' to 50300 to donate €4.