At 28, Ben Bravery was living and working in Beijing, committed to meeting the science communication needs of Chinese academics and researchers. Like many people of his age, he dismissed the early warning signs of colorectal cancer – including fatigue, intermittent bleeding and cramping – as symptomatic of the foreign environment he was living in. Luckily, his mum thought otherwise.
Within three days of returning to Australia, so that Ben could obtain a visa to return to China, his mum arranged for him to have a colonoscopy. There was no history of cancer in Ben’s family so the discovery of an invasive sigmoidal tumour and a diagnosis of Stage 3C colorectal cancer was a major shock. Ben wasn’t going back to China. Instead, he was pulled out of the world he knew and had to focus on staying alive, starting with pre-operative chemo-radiotherapy for six weeks to shrink the tumour then major surgery to remove it. What followed were an ileostomy (later reversed); more chemotherapy; 12 months’ treatment for blood clots in his lungs (one of the side effects of cancer treatment) and ongoing medical surveillance and check-ups.
“Cancer and the treatment for cancer are difficult at any age,” said Ben. “But as a young adult it can feel very isolating and lonely as you watch your peer group continue on with building their careers, getting married, and having babies.”
Australia has one of the highest rates of colorectal cancer in the world. In 2016, 17,520 people were diagnosed with colorectal cancer in Australia, up from 14,962 in 2013. The 5-year survival rate for is estimated to be 68%. December 2016 marked 5 years without the disease and Ben’s ongoing check-ups have now been scaled back from every 12 weeks to every 6 months.
“I’m very, very lucky to be a survivor” says Ben “but I sometimes get caught in that space of wanting to celebrate it but not really trusting that status and fearing that the cancer is going to come back.”
Fortunately, Ben has taken time to reflect on what he wants to do with his life and is keen to use this experience and his passion for science and helping people by becoming a doctor. Two years in to a medical degree, he’s still unsure of where he will specialise in medicine but Oncology and Palliative Care are high on the list.
Ben understands, firsthand, the importance of research. He hopes for a world where we can detect the disease quickly and have increased certainty around identifying the type of cancer and what treatments are going to work.
And, what has the experience of having cancer treatments and being in hospitals taught him? Ben says “I’d like to see a greater emphasis on the whole person, with mainstream doctors asking all patients about the emotional and social aspects of their disease, and not just paying attention to their physical health.”
Beyond Ben’s focus on his medical career and personal health, he is looking forward to getting married next year. Ben met his fiancé five months before his diagnosis and she has been a great support to him ever since.