Sharon’s story – Don’t make it too late

Sharon, an Aboriginal health worker from Darwin, shares the story of how bowel cancer affected her family, after her father was diagnosed in 2014. Sharon encourages people to use the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program kit.


My name is Sharon Wallace. I live in Darwin in the Northern Territory.

My mother was a Wangkurmara woman from Charleville in south west Queensland and my father was a Kamileroi man from Breeza in New South Wales where he grew up in Gunnedah.

I’ve been an Aboriginal Health Worker for 21 years now.

Now I am working as a workforce policy officer.

Bowel cancer affected my family about 2 years ago now. Almost 2 years to the day in a month’s time. My Dad had a few signs that something wasn’t right where he wasn’t eating as much, he wouldn’t leave the house, when we used to go fishing he’d rather stay at home, he started getting a bit disorientated, and spending a lot of time in the toilet and tired a lot. Just little things like that.

He went to Queensland the Christmas of 2013 — and I ended up taking him to the Toowoomba Hospital as he hadn’t eaten for a week. They did some tests and took him in for surgery thinking he had a bowel obstruction. In ICU the next day, they informed us that Dad had bowel cancer. They gave him a prognosis of about 3 months to live. So this was a big shock.

Bowel cancer screening is very important for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The bowel screening tests come out in the mail when people turn 50. So it’s important for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, when they receive the test, to do the test.

It’s important to do the test because just like my dad, there were signs and symptoms there that we didn’t understand or pick up on, and with bowel cancer often when the signs and symptoms do appear it’s often already too late to try and cure that cancer.

There is a good chance of living for a long time if the bowel cancer is picked up early.

A lot of our people don’t do the test because of the whole fear factor of the ‘c’ word. People don’t want to find out if they have cancer. It’s a scary thing to have done. It’s also not a nice bodily fluid to be dealing with. So Aboriginal Health Workers and practitioners play a vital role (and I mean Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sorry) play a vital role in making our mob feel safe to undertake that test.

Me, as an Aboriginal Health Practitioner myself, I’m trained in primary health care, that’s what we’re trained in and that is about prevention, and about empowering our own people to have control of their health.

So we’re in a perfect position if we’re the first point of contact, we understand the language, our culture, we can help our people feel safe and secure and explain to them the steps of doing the screening so that people don’t have so much fear.

Our families play a big role in caring for each other and caring for our community. So it’s important that if you have a family member or loved one that’s reached that 50 years of age.

When a bowel screening kit comes in the mail, don’t be scared of it. The main reason we get scared of something is when we don’t understand it. And that’s where we can talk to somebody, whether that’s your doctor, your Aboriginal Health Worker at the clinic, a nurse, or anybody that might know something about that test, or even family member that can read the instructions in the booklet that comes in the test.

Talk to somebody — don’t just throw it in the bin like my Dad did, you know. If he would’ve done that test he probably still would’ve been here today but it’s too late. So don’t make it too late for your family and loved ones. Sit down with them, open the box, it’s not scary.

We want our old people to get old, we want them to see their grandchildren and great grandchildren grow up and we don’t want them to be leaving us before their time. And bowel cancer is so preventable and curable, you know

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Sharon lost her dad to bowel cancer. She believes that if he had done the bowel cancer screening test, instead of throwing it away, he may still be alive. She talks about the importance for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to do the test. Sharon describes how trained Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Workers can help remove any fears about doing the test.

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