A decline in people seeking medical attention during the COVID-19 pandemic has emerged as one of the largest health challenges of 2020 and St Andrew’s War Memorial Hospital is calling on all patients to take action if they have noticed any changes to their health.
For 71 year-old Cleveland resident Judy, keeping her health in check during COVID-19 lockdowns made the difference between treating Stage 1 colorectal cancer versus more serious outcomes.
“I’d love to start with a spoiler alert – I’m alive!” laughs Judy.
Despite suffering a heart attack five years ago, Judy recovered quickly and built up her health and fitness and made a number of overseas trips, however it ensured she paid attention to changes in her body.
“In March this year, right around the time COVID was starting I noticed I had blood in my stool which was worrying but I felt absolutely fine,” Judy said.
“I had always done the bowel cancer testing so I didn’t expect there to be any problem.
“I visited my GP who sent me off to see Dr Sunny Lee for a colonoscopy which was scheduled the week they announced elective surgery was going to be cancelled unless it was for emergencies.
“Waking up from my procedure, Dr Lee told me they found a polyp and it was cancerous.
“I was relieved the theatre nurse was with me as we spoke because I was upset, in shock and I got emotional,” Judy said.
With restrictions on surgery imminent, Judy was unsure what this would mean for her situation. Enter colorectal surgeon Dr Hajir Nabi who came and saw Judy in recovery.
“Dr Nabi was just so kind and gentle and put me at ease immediately and explained he would do surgery the following week,” Judy said.
“I was relieved that it was being tended to so quickly,” she said.
After tests confirmed Judy’s cancer was localised, she underwent keyhole surgery to remove the cancer well as draining lymph nodes. A temporary stoma bag was fitted to allow time for her newly created bowel join to heal.
“I had to process quite a bit with what was happening to me, visitors weren’t allowed in the hospital at the time, but I felt so unwell I really didn’t mind,” Judy said.
“The staff were incredibly reassuring and gentle – one night I was really struggling and the nurse offered me a lemonade ice block – never have I been so happy about an ice block!” she said.
It didn’t take too long for things to look up for Judy.
“Dr Nabi called with my lab results and confirmed the cancer had been successfully removed and I didn’t need to have radiation or chemotherapy – this was stage one cancer,” Judy said.
Stage 1 rectal cancer carries with it an excellent chance of cure with surgery alone and Judy can expect her long-term chances of survival to be greater than 95%.
On 2 June, three months after her journey began, Judy had her stoma bag reversed.
“I am just so grateful for everything – for the expertise, the kindness,” Judy said.
St Andrew’s War Memorial Hospital Gastroenterologist Dr Sunny Lee says that despite COVID-19, we shouldn’t ignore changes in our bodies.
“Changes and symptoms shouldn’t be ignored – prompt investigation usually leads to much better outcomes, just like Judy's case,” Dr Lee said.
An article from the University of Melbourne reports that some countries have reported a 40 per cent decline in cancer cases at the peak of COVID-19, but an early GP visit means hospitals can prioritise care and capacity for cancer patients.
It seems appropriate for Judy to have the final word.
“If I had waited, who knows what would have happened,” she said.
 By Professor Maarten IJzerman and Professor Jon Emery, University of Melbourne