Advocacy, Community

Mother’s fight for life

Sharlese Turnbull-Tait, centre, with her young family has a big battle ahead of her. Photo: Supplied.

A young mother faced a critical delay in diagnosis before being told she has incurable cancer.

Sharlese Turnbull-Tait, 34, from Blenheim waited years for an answer from doctors only to find she has stage 4 bowel cancer which has now spread to her lungs.

Her devasted family are now frantically trying to raise enough money for a last-ditch treatment they hope will save her life.

The mum of two says she saw her own doctor after developing severe stomach cramps in 2018.

But despite several visits over the next few years and a pelvic scan, Sharlese was told it was probably endometriosis – an inflammatory condition of the uterus.

She now faces an anxious wait after an MRI scan last week to see if the cancer has spread even further.

“I went to my doctor so many times.”

“When I saw that doctor again after I’d been diagnosed with stage 4 bowel cancer, he apologised and offered to pray for me.

“He said it never thought it could be bowel cancer as I was too young.

“I want everyone to know the signs and symptoms as age just doesn’t matter,” Sharlese says.

The former care worker says she spent hundreds of dollars visiting her GP before a locum doctor noticed something abnormal in her blood test results.

She was immediately referred to a specialist who did a colonoscopy and discovered a large tumour.

A week later Sharlese was told the growth was cancerous and had been growing for years.

“I’m more angry than emotional as I feel really let down by the health service.

“I’m angry for myself but angrier on behalf of my children and family and what they’ve gone through,” she says.

Her children, Luka-Paul Cunniffe-Tait, 10, and Ellazae Cunniffe-Tait, 3, know that mummy is sick, says Sharlese.

She has spent weeks apart from them while undergoing surgery in Christchurch last year.What was supposed to be a three week stay turned into six weeks as Sharlese battled a twisted bowel and ended up in intensive care.

A grueling chemotherapy and radiation regime also took its toll.

“They removed part of my bowel. I was very tired and had to be fed through a tube in my nose,” she says.

Sharlese is pinning her hopes on immunotherapy drug Keytruda.

The drug is only government funded for certain breast cancers and the family hopes to raise at least $9000 towards the first dose to see if it will help.

If not, any money raised will be used to help Sharlese make memories with her children instead.

Her sister Kelsie Small says donations could also be put towards a holiday for the family.

“We would love to raise enough money to support alternative treatments for her to give her a longer life. We will also try to send her away with her family on holiday if she isn’t too sick to create beautiful memories.”

A Give a Little page has been set up. Visit givealittle.co.nz and search under the name Sharlese.

New Zealand has one of the highest bowel cancer rates in the world. Bowel cancer is the second highest cause of cancer death in New Zealand.

Bowel cancer affects people of all ages, especially those in people aged 60 years and more.

There is a free national screening programme available for people aged 60 to 74 years old.

In 2018 Nelson Marlborough Health (NMH) staff launched the National Bowel Screening Programme in the region.

About 30,000 people aged 60 – 74 were invited to participate in the programme.

The screening helps save lives by detecting pre-cancerous polys or finding bowel cancer while still in the early stages.

Sharlese is too young to have taken part in the programme and wants everyone to know that bowel cancer can strike at any age.

“My doctor didn’t consider it, he thought I was too young,” she says.

The numbers of people under 50 years old being diagnosed with the disease is rising in New Zealand

Sharlese says the delay in being diagnosed meant her cancer had time to spread.

She doesn’t want anyone else to share the same fate.

“Be aware of the symptoms,” she says.

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