Bowel cancer: Dunedin mother of three diagnosed with shock at 42

Nicola Petrie, pictured with her husband Andrew and their three daughters Renée, 12, Zoë, 8, and Greer, 4, was diagnosed with an aggressive form of bowel cancer in 2024. Photo / Sinead McGivern

More than 3,000 Kiwis diagnosed with intestinal problems cancer every year, but what you may not know is that more than 350 of them are under 50 years old, according to Bowel Cancer New Zealand. Ahead of Bowel Cancer Awareness Month in June, Nicola Petrie, a mother living in the South Island, shares the story of her own diagnosis at just 42 years old.

When Nicola Petrie began to experience mild symptoms of anemia, her first thought was: “I have to recover so I can donate blood again.”

A month later, the mother-of-three was diagnosed with stage 4 bowel cancer, underwent major surgery and now faces a huge cost for treatment that could give her more time with her young family, but is not funded in any way. New Zealand.

Nicola and her husband Andrew describe themselves as a “Dunedin born and bred” couple who love serving their local community: Nicola works on the local council, while Andrew works for the Otago Cricket Association.

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They are parents to three daughters, Renée, 12, Zoë, 8, and Greer, 4, with the youngest starting school in October. But the couple say their world “just stopped” when a 6-hour wait in A&E resulted in Nicola being diagnosed with an aggressive form of bowel cancer on April 22 this year.

“A month ago I was feeling quite tired and what I thought was slight anemia; not enough for the doctor to worry, but not enough to be able to donate blood,” Nicola tells Herald.

She was worried she had an intestinal blockage, but her doctor thought she had constipation and prescribed laxatives.

“We went home and I tried taking the laxatives, but nothing stayed for basically 48 hours. I was very reluctant to go to the ER, but Andrew stood his ground and said, ‘Let’s go.'”

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Before the diagnosis, Nicola and Andrew were “jovial” and relaxed, joking “they already have the enema”.

Then, as Andrew recalls, “all I remember is the doctor saying, ‘I need to go get a chair,’” before delivering the heartbreaking news.

“And then they tell you that it seems incurable,” says Nicola. “’Heartbreaking’ is probably the way to describe it. “The world just stops.”

At noon that day, she underwent surgery to remove a tumor and some polyps from her intestine. Although it was a major operation, she says it was “relatively simple and quick to recover.”

However, histology revealed that Nicola has a mutation in the BRAF gene, meaning she has a particularly aggressive form of bowel cancer. It means that after several weeks of publicly funded chemotherapy, she will need a combination of BRAF-specific drugs, Cetuximab and Encorafenib, which, as Andrew explains, “is more likely to buy time than hope for anything else.”

As far as they know, this drug treatment will cost between $10,000 and $15,000 a month, a total of $60,000 to $70,000 for six or seven months of treatment.

This drug combination is not funded in New Zealand, although they have the option to apply for some funding through Nicola’s oncologist on compassionate grounds.

Dunedin couple Andrew and Nicola Petrie "the world stopped" when Nicola was diagnosed with bowel cancer.  Photo / Sinead McGivern
Dunedin couple Andrew and Nicola Petrie’s “world” came to a halt when Nicola was diagnosed with bowel cancer. Photo / Sinead McGivern

However, on the other side of the ditch the story is different. Drug treatment is partially funded in Australia. Would you ever consider traveling there for it?

“I think the difficulty is how aggressive he is and how much energy Nicola has,” Andrew says. “Because the prognosis is not very good, it’s a question of how far you go, and also quality versus quantity (of time).”

Nicola has also been offered a clinical trial in Auckland, but as the couple want to keep home life “as normal as possible” for their children, they have yet to make a decision.

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“We haven’t ruled it out, but we’re just trying to keep our options open,” he says.

They can’t believe how many people – friends, family and strangers – have already donated to a Givealittle page set up by one of Nicola’s high school friends. At the time of writing, the page had raised more than $30,000.

The mother of three children holds back tears. “It’s so overwhelming, we are normal people who have been blessed by strangers and friends alike.”

That same friend contacted a local photographer and makeup artist to arrange a family photo shoot before Nicola’s treatment began. Both responded saying they would love to participate and did not expect any payment for their services.

“We just wanted something to commemorate the family before any physical changes occurred and I was so touched by how generous these complete strangers were to me,” says Nicola.

In the meantime, they want to make sure life goes on normally for their young family.

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When it came time to break the news of her diagnosis to her daughters, Nicola says, “I kind of let them guide me a little bit.”

As Nicola Petrie undergoes treatment for bowel cancer, she wants home life to be as normal as possible for her three young daughters.  Photo / Sinead McGivern
As Nicola Petrie undergoes treatment for bowel cancer, she wants home life to be as normal as possible for her three young daughters. Photo / Sinead McGivern

“My oldest son really likes it and pretty much knows most of it. My middle son said to me, ‘Do you know what cancer is?’ and then let her ask questions about it, and then my youngest son thinks I’m sick.

“I think that’s probably been good for me too, because we can stay positive about what the future holds.”

“We are trying to do as many normal activities as we can, it will just be a matter of how we can maintain them,” Andrew adds, but it is a challenge. “It is very difficult for me to have almost two realities.”

One of those realities is what they know from the oncologist and doctors, and the other is the hope that the couple clings to as they make the most of the time they have together.

“It can be difficult to stay positive, knowing there will be an end.”

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At 42, Nicola is not eligible for free bowel cancer testing and, while she knows that testing everyone may not be “economically viable”, she is one of many whose diagnoses could have been caught earlier if the things would have been different.

“You just don’t even have a fighting chance when you’re diagnosed at stage 4,” he says.

“My story is every hypochondriac’s nightmare because it is so easy to attribute it to other symptoms. If you don’t feel good, keep pushing and stick up for yourself.”

You can donate to GiveaLittle page prepared for Nicola and Andrew Petrie and their family here.

Nicola Petrie in the photo with her daughter Renée, 12 years old.  Photo / Sinead McGivern
Nicola Petrie in the photo with her daughter Renée, 12 years old. Photo / Sinead McGivern

Bowel cancer in New Zealand

More and more New Zealanders are being diagnosed with bowel cancer at a young age.

A study published by the University of Otago on May 9 showed cases among Kiwis under 50 increased by an average of 26 per cent each decade from 2000 to 2022.

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In New Zealand, Kiwis aged 60 to 74 are entitled to free bowel cancer screening every two years. The National Party pledged during last year’s election campaign to lower the screening age to 55.

Earlier this month, Health Minister Dr. Shane Reti’s office told the Herald He had received advice to lower the screening age, but declined to reveal details because it was under “active consideration.”

Bowel Cancer New Zealand believes the screening age should be lowered to 45 years.

The charity’s CEO, Rebekah Heal, tells the Herald“Kiwis need to know that bowel cancer affects men and women of all ages; You are never too young and this disease does not discriminate.

“There is an increasing incidence of bowel cancer among younger people. New Zealand has one of the highest rates of bowel cancer in the world and is the second highest cause of cancer death in our country.

“To change these shocking statistics, we desperately need to reduce the age of detection to at least 50 years, so that we are detecting bowel cancer earlier, when it is still treatable and beatable.”

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Symptoms to watch for include changes in bowel movements over several weeks, blood in the stool, fatigue, anemia, and unexplained weight loss.

Heal advises: “Don’t hesitate to see your GP if you have bowel problems; “90 percent of bowel cancer is curable if detected early.”

For more information about bowel cancer and Bowel Cancer Awareness Month, visit the Bowel Cancer New Zealand website. here.

Bethany Reitsma is an Auckland-based journalist covering lifestyle and entertainment stories and joined the Herald in 2019. He specializes in counting Real life stories from Kiwis, tricks to save money and anything remotely related to coffee.

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