For years Sheffield GP Dr Maria Read’s daily life has been dedicated to spotting the signs and symptoms of all manner of ailments.
But when she herself was diagnosed with a serious condition, it came as a ‘bolt from the blue’.
The 67-year-old, a partner at Dovercourt Road Surgery in Skye Edge, was told she had bowel cancer after taking part in the home screening programme run by the NHS.
“I felt perfectly fine so it was a real shock to find there was anything wrong,” said Dr Read.
“I hadn’t got any of the risk factors – I’ve never smoked, I eat lots of fruit and vegetables, I exercise, I’m maybe just a few pounds overweight but nothing of great significance, and I had no family history of bowel cancer.
“It proves you can’t rely on waiting to get ill. It can hit anybody at any time.”
However, as the doctor’s illness was picked up early, it meant she could undergo quick surgery at the Northern General Hospital, completely removing all traces of the cancer and offering her an excellent prognosis.
But too few people take up the offer of screening, despite the fact that bowel cancer is the second most fatal cancer in the UK. Three years ago the annual death toll stood at 16,187, according to the most recent figures from Cancer Research UK.
The screening test is offered to people aged over 60, but only just over half of those invited to take part do so.
Dr Read sent her sample through the post at Christmastime last year, and a result came back in mid-January revealing it was ‘abnormal’.
A colonoscopy appointment was then arranged at the Northern General.
“Again I wasn’t expecting anything – I felt absolutely fine – but I was diagnosed with cancer. It was just quite a shock, a complete bolt from the blue,” said the doctor, who is a mother-of-three and grandmother.
“I’m a GP so I always thought I would know if something was wrong. The day before the result came through I’d booked to go on holiday to Africa. I never thought twice about it being abnormal.”
The endoscopist who carried out the examination spotted the cancer ‘almost at the end of the test’, Dr Read said.
“She kept saying it was fine, she was surprised when she found it. She took biopsies and said to me straight away ‘This is cancer’.”
But she added: “It was very localised, there was no sign of any spread.”
The next step was to undergo keyhole surgery in February.
“The whole thing was really slick. I can’t praise them enough. I don’t need any more treatment and have a 95 per cent chance of surviving for more than five years.”
She said it proved that screening is ‘there for a purpose’.
“The whole point of going for screening is to pick things up early. My surgery was less invasive.
“If you wait until things go wrong – for example, if you notice blood or lose weight – the cancer could be more advanced.”
Earlier this year a survey of more than 3,000 Sheffield residents found that one in four people do not take up screening tests for any type of cancer, or know a symptom of the illness.
In the city, lung cancer is the most commonly diagnosed form of the disease, followed by cancer of the breast, bowel and prostate. Nationally the most common is breast cancer.
Signs of bowel cancer to look out for include persistent abdominal pain, looser bowel movements or blood in stools.
Drinking alcohol, smoking, eating red and processed meat and being overweight are linked to an increased risk of the condition.
“We appreciate it’s not pleasant, but doing the test saves lives,” said Dr Stuart Riley, clinical director of the South Yorkshire and Bassetlaw Screening Centre, which is based at the Northern General.
“Bowel cancer is common but if we pick it up through screening rather than waiting for symptoms it’s much more likely to be early stage cancer and therefore much more likely to be cured.
“Colonoscopy – the telescopic examination of the bowel which is done if a stool test is positive – allows us to remove bowel polyps. Since bowel cancer develops from polyps, removing these polyps prevents cancer.”
People ‘not wanting to think about cancer’ is at least partly the root of the problem, Dr Read believes.
“They don’t like it, especially men – they’re less likely to take up the offer. In France, there is screening, but you have to go to the doctor and pay for the test, then claim back the money, so it’s a lot more fiddly. Here it couldn’t be easier.
“You just have to bite the bullet and do it and not be squeamish.”
Call 0800 7076060 or 0114 2269555 for more information about screening.
There are also support groups in Sheffield – visit www.bowelcancersupport.org for details.