ROGER Faber wishes he had listened to his gut, even though the problem was a bit further down.
It was seven years ago that, after noticing a bit of blood in his poo, the then-52-year-old went to see his doctor.
“Men can be pretty useless at getting checked out but eventually I went, explained my symptoms and was tested for prostate cancer, which is pretty much all you hear about for cancers in men. That came back clear and, being told it was probably haemorrhoids, I took the medication and got on with my life.”
For Roger that meant continuing as president of the Tatapouri Sports Fishing Club and running the Carpet Court business he has co-owned for 25 years (and worked at for 43), along with lots of fishing, football and, more recently, spending time with his first grandchild.
But by November 2019 the blood was becoming more apparent and, adding insult to injury, he was having the occasional “accident”.
“I went back to the doctor and again tested clear for prostate cancer, but this time he recommended I have a colonoscopy. So, a couple of weeks later I headed up to Gisborne Hospital for that and when I came around the surgeon told me I had stage three bowel cancer.
“I knew something was wrong, but still felt as good as gold - I had no idea what was to come. I soon found out when, before my surgery, I had coffee with a doctor friend. He said 'you feel good now, but soon we're going to make you feel like absolute crap'. And they did.”
In late January, Roger went to Waikato Hospital for five days of radiation treatment and after a couple of weeks returned for surgery to remove 30 centimetres of bowel; create a stoma (to release waste and enable healing);and remove lymph nodes for further testing.
Then it all went bad.
“After a couple of days I was in terrible agony and vomiting huge volumes of stomach fluids, so I was rushed back to surgery where they removed four litres of stomach acid that had leaked into my surrounding organs, which had to be taken out, cleaned and put back in again.
“Afterwards I was told the surgeon didn't know whether I was going to come out of it alive, so that was a bit of a wake-up call.”
Roger's partner of five years, Penny Pardoe, says that's the only time she has seen him scared. “Before he went back to surgery we didn't actually realise that he could die, but we knew something was really, really wrong.”
And there was more to come. With one lymph node having tested positive for cancer Roger was asked whether he wanted to undergo chemotherapy (bringing his chances of surviving the next few years to over 80 percent).
He opted for the chemo, which he started in late February and underwent right through the Covid-19 lockdown. It will likely continue until the end of August.
“I've been lucky to escape some side effects, like nausea, and I haven't lost too much hair, but it's certainly a rough ride that leaves you feeling utterly wrecked and fatigued. I understand why some people give it up – it is brutal – but I see it as an investment in the rest of my life so am determined to see it through.”
Bowel cancer is more common in men, especially those over the age of 60, but still 12 percent of New Zealanders diagnosed every year are aged 50-to-59.
And, though it can run in the family, Roger was adopted so didn't have that trigger to alert him.
Being super-fit, a non-smoker who had a healthy diet, he'd done everything right and, other than the blood spots, never noted other common symptoms like a change in bowel habits, pain or a lump in the abdomen, tiredness, weight loss or anaemia.
He's certainly lost a bit of weight now but, after dropping from his usual 88 kilograms to just 70, is slowly building himself up again.
And he says the decisions he's making today are designed to make sure he gets the most out of the rest of his life.
“Penny has been there to support me so that's been amazing, and now I've sold my business so I can focus on this stage of my life, and the future,” he says.
He wants to spend more time with his two adult sons and his now two grandchildren. He wants to take long, relaxing trips on his boat. He wants to go fishing. Play football. Get back on the tennis court.
Both he and Penny say their new routine is more relaxed but they're still very busy.
“We don't know how we had time to do everything before. What we've realised is how much we have missed out on, but we're making up for lost time now.”
Perhaps ironically, Roger will this year turn 60, the age when he would have qualified for the free National Bowel Screening Programme test, which is available to those aged 60-74 and is super-easy. A test kit arrives in the mail, that can detect tiny traces of blood in a poo sample. It’s simple, quick and easy to do.
Anyone with symptoms, is urged to see their doctor straight away. The disease is treatable – and beatable – in its early stages. Roger is focused in helping ensure others don't leave it so late.
“While there is a lot of information about other types of cancer, people don’t like talking about bowel cancer,” he says. “But I'll talk about it anytime, anywhere – especially to men.”
And he's already chalked up at least one big success from a chat he had in January with some fellow store managers at a Carpet Court conference.
“One of them was younger than me but showing a few symptoms so he went to get checked and was diagnosed with early-stage bowel cancer,” he says.
“Obviously, he was stoked to have got it so early and I'm stoked that he now doesn't have to go through what I have. It's not a club you want to be in.”