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Bowel screening nurse specialist hopes to break down barriers around bowel health in the community

Bowel Screening Nurse Specialist at Counties Manukau Health Hannah Gleeson is used to people going ‘ew’ when talking about her work as a nurse in the National Bowel Screening Programme (for the Counties Manukau area), but she’s determined to break down the social barriers around bowel cancer and bowel health.

“I like to challenge people sometimes when I say I work in this space; their reaction is ‘ew you work with bowels’. Why do people think like this; everyone has a bowel. I want to help break down the stigma around bowel health and the programme,” she says.

Previously working on wards at North Shore Hospital and Waitakere Hospital, Hannah wanted a change. It’s led to her finding her passion in community-based prevention work through the programme.

“Working on the wards I saw a lot of late admissions; issues that could have been prevented. I found there was a gap; that people weren’t getting the care management that they needed. It made me really want to do more community-focused prevention work.”

Working as a nurse specialist in the programme for over a year, she’s built strong relationships with her patients and their families.

“[Working in the programme] can be really eye opening. You’re not just treating the medical condition; there’s so many things around the patient that’s happening to them. You get to know the patients really well; you care about them so much,” she says.

“Some of the patients need a bit more support, so you want them to feel comfortable to reach out and make contact. One of my patients rang me on Christmas Day last year, which I didn’t mind. It was nice to know they trusted me enough that they knew they could call me anytime. I feel like working here I’m making a real difference; the work is so rewarding. All the families I’ve worked with, they’re just so thankful for our help and support.”

Having to tell someone they may have bowel cancer can be an overwhelming experience; especially if that person is showing no symptoms and feels well.

“The programme is about finding bowel cancer at its early stages. What I really like working in this space is that you can offer hope. Around ninety percent of bowel cancers found early are treatable,” she says.

“It’s really hard for us when cancer is found from the procedure. You get in the lift and you have to go down and tell the patient. This person may have no medical issues; they don’t take any medication. They look like a well person, and then you go down there and change their life. It’s so important to be there for them and answer all their questions because it’s a scary time for them.”

Hannah wants to continue to champion the importance of getting regular health checks and taking part in preventative programmes like bowel screening.

“People would come in with bowel cancer symptoms, and they knew they had symptoms, but didn’t do something about it earlier as there’s a lot of stigma around the bowel. I want to continue to give bowel cancer prevention more of a platform, so there’s open conversation around it.”

June is Bowel Cancer Awareness Month. Bowel cancer is the second highest cause of cancer deaths in New Zealand, with 1200 people dying each year. Bowel screening can help find bowel cancer early and often successfully treat it. The test is free to people aged 60 - 74 who live in Counties Manukau. Contact our bowel screening team: BowelScreening@middlemore.co.nz or go to www.timetoscreen.co.nz or call 0800 924 432 for more information.

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