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'Mr Kennelly, you have cancer ...'

By Keith Kennelly - posted Thursday, 5 April 2007

Cancer is a fearful word for many, especially those who grew up in an era when such a diagnosis was a virtual death sentence. Men pay little heed to their health, unlike women. Until, that is, a man encounters severe symptoms and a serious threat to life, his life. Part of the cause for these fears and men’s reluctance to seek out health care, I believe, is a lack of knowledge and a hidden modesty.

After passing a large amount of blood which reoccurred periodically over a four or five week period and suffering highly irregular bowel movements for about the same time, I reluctantly dragged myself off to my very busy local GP. A bloke I’d had as little to do with as I possibly could over the preceding few years.

Vince is a lovely bloke, a man’s man and easy to talk with. His only liability was being in a line of work I found I wanted little to do with. Now I needed him. He was warm and a little philosophical. After going through all the symptoms and assorted seemingly irrelevant questions he dryly quipped, “Blokes, - up to 40 you think you’ll live forever, then you decide you want to and you come here looking for advice, but do little. Then at 50 you do something about it but only after you suddenly find you’ve contracted something that can kill, which could have been avoided if you’d taken the advice offered at 40”.


It was said with a wry smile. We both knew he was right. He held the evidence: my entire medical history in his hands. I didn’t feel at death’s door and said so. Vince was very kind. “You will if you don’t do as I bloody advise.” Knowing I’d been a complete dill I nodded and meekly submitted. Vince rang “his” specialist and arranged an immediate colonoscopy.

Fear was my greatest emotion. I’d lived through the era when cancer was a certain death sentence. Within days and having followed the dieting, abstinence and drug regime I presented at the local private hospital and paid the $350 bill up front. A bill for tests followed, all but $50 was covered by Medicare. The staff were beaut, including the admissions and clerical, but especially the female anaesthetist.

On awaking after the “service” I was fronted by the specialist, another lovely bloke, but given his line of work, I just didn’t seem to be able to regard him as a man’s man. He broke the bad news to me: “a lower bowel cancer … rectal cancer”.

It was a terrible shock, even though I’d prepared myself for such an eventuality. All I could say was, “will it spread?”. Gently I was told all cancers can spread, and having realised the real intent behind my vague question he added, but if people follow the procedures most will survive cancer. However his manner made me realise, even through the mists of anaesthesia, it was serious and surgery was not just a possibility but was going to be an eventuality.

The specialist referred me to the local public hospital and a colorectal surgeon. My appointment was within a week. I said I’d prefer private but I was given some very good advice. Cancer treatment is given priority in the public system and unless I really wanted to spend at least $15,000 I was probably better saving my money for something else. My northern English and Scottish heritages kicked in and frugality won out over a need for privacy. Public it would be.

I had my appointment in the Colorectal Oncology Department two weeks before Christmas. Examination confirmed a cancer but not its size, whether attached to the bowel wall or organs adjacent to the bowel, or its spread to the lymph system or other organs.


The examination was conducted, not by the specialist, but by a newly qualified surgeon, the surgeon’s registrar. Yet another lovely bloke, a youngish man from an Asian background, he had a very gentle manner. Again he was frank as any man would want and he explained all the possibilities, from removal of the cancer and a small part of the bowel, through to removal of a large part and “reshape” of the bowel; removal of large part of the bowel and the anus and the need for the dreaded “bag”; removal of part of the bowel and part of liver, the need for chemotherapy and radiation treatment; the possible spread to the lymph nodes or other organs; and finally the possibility of not doing anything - which of course would  result in death. Everything was explained … in detail.

I needed a CT scan immediately and later a sigmoidoscopy. Those would reveal the probable extent of the cancer. There was a two-week wait for a CT scan in the public hospital. I made an appointment at a private hospital for the next day. Its cost $550 but carried a Medicare rebate of over $400. Two days later I underwent the sigmoidoscopy in the public hospital.

The surgeon attended and when he visited me later, he explained the size of the cancer and its probable spread. He diagnosed a stage two cancer with the possibility it may have spread or was getting ready to spread to the lymph system. He made an immediate appointment for the oncology, chemotherapy and radiation departments. The surgeon was a distant sort of chap and was very clinical. I imagined he was very busy. I respected and liked him immediately.

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About the Author

Keith Kennelly is a 53-year-old small business operator, resident in Brisbane who raised two childern as a single dad. His hobbies now include swiming, reading, sailing and Texas Hold 'Em poker.

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