A RESTAURANT executive who was diagnosed with stage four bowel cancer aged just 34 has urged other young people not to ignore symptoms if they “know something is wrong”.
Craig Wheatley, from Edinburgh, went to his GP five times in the space of four months complaining about abdominal pain and extreme fatigue.
He was turned away and told the problems were probably due to diet before finally being sent for a blood test in February 2017 which revealed unusually low iron.
Mr Wheatley, now 37, said: “The results suggested I was losing blood somewhere so they sent me for a colonoscopy.
“That was supposed to be a first step in trying to find out why the iron in my blood was so low, but it just so happened that they discovered cancer in my bowel.”
Mr Wheatley, who is sharing his experience to coincide with World Advanced Bowel Cancer Day, is one of a growing number of Scots in their 30s being diagnosed with the disease.
In 2017, the most recent year where statistics are available, there were 63 new cases in the 30 to 39 age group – the highest since records began in 1993.
Rates of the disease among thirty-somethings in Scotland have also doubled since 2000, in line with trends seen in the US, Australia and other western nations.
The cause of the rise remains unclear and, because it remains comparatively rare for young people, they are often diagnosed late.
Genetic tests later revealed that Mr Wheatley has Lynch Syndrome, a hereditary condition which substantially increases a person’s risk of developing colorectal cancer.
Mr Wheatley, the head of operations for a restaurant company in the capital, underwent surgery to remove part of his bowel and surrounding tissue.
Although imaging showed signs of cancer in his liver also, it appeared stable.
He completed six months of chemotherapy with scans every six weeks, but was dealt a blow when the first scan following the end of his treatment revealed that the cancer had spread extensively within his pelvis and taken hold in his rectum, urethra and left kidney.
He was re-admitted to hospital for a major nine-hour operation that included removing his rectum, forcing him to get a stoma, and resumed a fresh round of chemotherapy.
Once he recovered, surgeons operated again to remove cancerous tissue from his liver, which has since grown back healthily.
However, scans prior to that surgery showed two cancerous nodules in his lung.
In a twist of good fortune, however, the discovery of these nodules meant he qualified for an innovative new immunotherapy medicine called pembrolizumab (Keytruda), which famously eradicated melanoma tumours in former US president Jimmy Carter.
Although not available for his type of cancer on the NHS, Mr Wheatley secured a spot on a clinical trial testing it alongside another targeted cancer drug called defactinib. The effects have been encouraging.
Mr Wheatley said: “It’s a two year trial. I’ve been on it for 18-19 months and it’s got to a point now where the nodules in my lung are barely visible in scans, to the point where the doctors are simply not concerned about them.
“A bit in my pelvis that they’ve always had their eye on has shrunk too. It was 42mm in the first place and now it’s 11mm on my latest visit to my oncologist.
“When I finish this trial in February next year I’ll just go into a scan cycle. This particular immunotherapy drug has shown that people who have a good response to it tend to go on to have that reaction even once they finish the drug, so all being well there’s a very good chance I’ll have a normal life.”
Between 2017 and 2018, there were 1604 cases of bowel cancer in Scotland diagnosed at stage four – around 24 per cent of the total.
Mr Wheatley stresses that he has had “fantastic” care from the NHS since being diagnosed, but regrets how long that took.
“I understand the pressures that the NHS is under,” said Mr Wheatley. “Not everyone can be sent on day one for a colonoscopy because of the cost.
“However, it was my fifth visit over the space of four months before I was referred for a blood test. I do sometimes feel that if I hadn’t pushed the matter then it would have been left for even longer.
“With my cancer being as advanced as it was, I wonder how much easier the process might have been had we acted sooner.
“So I do believe, if you think something is wrong, chase it. That’s especially so with bowel cancer because the sliding scale for how soon you catch it compared to survival is incredible.”
Claire Donaghy, head of Scotland at Bowel Cancer UK, said: “ Although the disease is more common in the over 50’s, it can affect people at any age.
“We have been calling on the government for a long time to put initiatives in place to reduce the number of people diagnosed at the late stage of the disease and help ensure more people are diagnosed at the earlier stages.”
Minister for Public Health Joe FitzPatrick said: “Screening and early detection is crucial to improving cancer survival. Urgent cancer referrals are always fast tracked and the Scottish Referral Guidelines for Suspected Cancer were recently refreshed, providing specific guidance on how to handle high risk symptoms, including for those under 40.
“We are working to beat cancer, investing over £100 million in our cancer strategy and are continuing to tackle variations in early detection rates, with more than £2.7 million funding projects targeted at reducing inequalities in access to the three cancer screening programmes and improve screening uptake amongst groups least likely to participate.”