In January 2020, the first case of COVID-19 was reported in NSW. Just a few days later, Karen Grega’s life changed forever.
Karen wasn’t initially worried when she received a letter in early February stating that her National Bowel Screening sample had tested positive for faecal occult blood. Even after a discussion with her GP, who’d also received a copy of the letter, Karen wasn’t overly concerned given she’d had a normal colonoscopy less than a year previously, and she wasn’t experiencing any bowel cancer symptoms, such as a change in bowel habits, blood in her poo, or abdominal pain.
“But the Gastroenterologist asked me to come back in for another colonoscopy, and a few days later I was told he’d detected some cancer cells. It wasn’t until I met with the colorectal surgeon soon after and heard the words “You have rectal cancer”, that the reality of the situation hit home,” says Karen, who was 62 when she was diagnosed.
Cancer treatment during COVID-19
Karen started treatment a few weeks later, and mid-year underwent surgery to have part of her large intestine removed with a stoma bag attached for the next five months. Although the surgery went well, the ongoing COVID restrictions and lockdowns made her experience more stressful with many of the face-to-face support services not available.
“With no family in Sydney, my sister flew down from Brisbane to look after me after I was discharged from hospital. During COVID, state borders were closed often with very little warning. Due to a change by the Queensland Government while my sister was in Sydney, on her return she needed to go into quarantine for two weeks, with a $3,000 price tag.”
Learning her cancer had spread
Almost a year later in January 2021, Karen had a routine CT scan, where she found out that her cancer had spread to her liver. There was some good news – the cancer was isolated to just one part of her liver. But there was also bad news: Karen would need more invasive treatment. And if the treatment didn’t work, she would only have around a year to live.
“I remember going to put some night cream on my face after my shower later that night. I stopped and thought ‘Why bother?’ It seemed like such a trivial, meaningless thing to do given what I’d been told a few hours earlier.”
Karen’s oncologist agreed that she could make a quick weekend trip to Brisbane to see her family, who she hadn’t seen in over 12 months due to COVID, before having a cathaport inserted and starting 12 rounds of infusion chemotherapy, as opposed to her previous oral chemotherapy
“Over that weekend I savoured every kiss and cuddle with my family. Saying goodbye was very different to every other goodbye.”
In February 2021, Karen started her first round of chemotherapy treatment at the Nelune Cancer Centre in Darlinghurst. This was followed by surgery to remove half of her liver and her gall bladder late May.
“I managed to put together a roster of friends who had flexible work situations due to the COVID lockdowns to collect me at the end of each session. In the beginning my friends would sit with me for an hour or so when I got home, but as the lockdowns became stricter, it was more of a quick pick-up and drop-off.”
Inspiring others to take part in bowel cancer screening
Fortunately, the treatments worked, and Karen is now over 12 months’ cancer free. To mark this milestone, Karen decided to produce a podcast, ‘Love, Laughter & Loo Time’. The podcast has been instrumental in helping Karen process her cancer experience and reflect on everything she’s learnt in a cancer management sense.
“It was cathartic going back through everything. When the podcast was finally released, you think, ‘Oh my god did I really go through all of that’. There were so many people who didn’t know I’d had cancer because of COVID. I only shared my diagnosis on a need-to-know basis at the time.
“But now I’m mentally, emotionally, and physically strong enough to put it out there. You pick your time. Everyone’s situation and journey, whilst there are many similarities, are also different. You do what you specifically need to do to get you through probably the most traumatic time in your life. And I’ve learnt that I’m a lot more resilient than I ever thought.”
Karen is also passionate about encouraging others to take part in the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program, reiterating the importance of bowel screening in every podcast episode and reminding people to do the test when it first arrives and avoid putting it in a bottom drawer or on a shelf somewhere out of sight
“The National Bowel Cancer Screening Program is the only reason I’m here talking to you today. With early detection, it’s one of the most curable forms of cancer.”
Sign the petition for Cancer Council NSW’s Here for Change campaign to raise the participation rate in the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program. Be here for change, be here for life: www.canact.com.au/hereforchange.