Without knowing it, Queensland mother-of-five Melissa Laan was showing bowel cancer symptoms for years — then a sudden surgery resulted in the removal of a 25-centimetre tumour.

Key points:

  • Doctors initially told Melissa Laan she was too young to have bowel cancer
  • The mother insisted on having a colonoscopy and a large tumor was found
  • Bowelscan Queensland says more than 1,500 young Australians are diagnosed with the disease every year

Now, with early onset bowel cancer rates rising across the nation, the 38-year-old from Emerald is urging people to get checked.

Ms Laan said she did not know enough about the disease to recognise the warning signs before she was diagnosed in 2019.

“I had quite a lot of symptoms — a lot of them were very easy for me to pass up,” she said.

But even when she sought medical help bowel cancer was ruled out as a suspected cause because of her age.

“Predominately doctors still say over-50 males,” Ms Laan said.

“Well, I was a mid-30s female and reasonably fit.

“When I started to notice there was some bleeding, [the doctors] said, ‘You’ve had kids, it’s probably haemorrhoids.’

A young, blonde woman holding her phone with a photo of the polyps on her lower bowel.

Ms Laan says she might’ve been able to be treated locally if she’d been diagnosed earlier.(

Supplied: Melissa Laan

)

Fighting for the right diagnosis

A prolapse of bowel tissue followed by a bowel obstruction prompted Ms Laan to finally undergo a colonoscopy.

She was rushed to Brisbane by the Royal Flying Doctor Service to remove what her specialist later described as the second-biggest tumour he had ever seen.

The surgery was a success, but the recovery was an uphill battle.

“Nutrition uptake had obviously been affected because so much of my bowel was covered,” Ms Laan said.

“I would quite frequently be dehydrated because my body wouldn’t be able to absorb water, because my bowel was coated in tumour and polyps.

“In the healing process I had additional complications, which meant I got flown back to Brisbane with peritonitis, and I went septic.”

Ms Laan was fitted with an ileostomy bag and flown to Brisbane monthly for specialist check-ups.

“It didn’t stop me from going back and swimming to try and build my lungs back up, do some truck driving, do a couple of hours flying a plane,” she said.

A slim woman with her hair in a bun, standing in front of a truck, smiling.

Ms Laan learned how to drive a truck while wearing an ileostomy bag.(

Supplied: Melissa Laan

)

Not just an older person’s disease

More than 1,500 young Australians are diagnosed with bowel cancer each year, according to Bowel Cancer Australia.

Bowelscan Queensland spokesman Mal Padgett said the misconception that people in their 30s were too young to be diagnosed was having lethal results.

“The common thing is that people think you’re too young for bowel cancer, and that’s not right,” Mr Padgett said.

He said early diagnosis was crucial for regional Queenslanders because towns away from larger city centres often accounted for above-average fatality rates from bowel cancer. 

“Rockhampton [is] between 15-22 per cent above the national average, Biloela is 20 per cent above the national average, Mount Morgan, I think, [is] 11 per cent,” Mr Padgett said.

A blonde woman in a dark dress with a big smile, surrounded by hospital staff.

Ms Laan spent a month in hospital, but there were plenty of appointments to follow.(

Supplied: Melissa Laan

)

Knowing the symptoms

Ms Laan said travelling for treatment caused was particularly tough on people with advanced cases.

“When I had my complications, I was flown out to Brisbane where I stayed in hospital for over a month,” she said.

“If you get an early diagnosis and they remove the polyps, well then you’re able to do that at the Emerald hospital.”

Dehydration, anaemia, blood, or mucus in stools were all symptoms Ms Laan was showing before her diagnosis.

She said any young Queenslander showing these signs should talk to their doctor about getting a colonoscopy.

“You’re asleep at the time and prep may not be your favourite thing to do, but it is well worth the while,” she said.

Posted , updated 

Fit and young, this mum-of-five had no reason to suspect she was seriously ill — but she was
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