The New Zealand Herald

Minister’s story shows we must listen to our bodies


Cabinet Minister Kiri Allan has done a great service to the country in highlighti­ng the common but personally bewilderin­g path people take to a cancer diagnosis. In announcing on Facebook that she has stage three cervical cancer, Allan urged people to get check-ups saying: “It may save your life”.

Hopefully, at least some people will now take note, be alert to sudden physical changes and help themselves avoid a life-threatenin­g fate.

Tests and screenings are the first line of defence for early detection of medical problems, which can be crucial in deciding how it all turns out. Preventing yourself from getting near the cliff’s edge is better than hanging on for a rescue.

Allan bravely outlined the thoughts and feelings that hinder to seeking help, including not wanting to think about a potential health threat. “To be honest, I’m one of those gals that hates anything to do with ‘down there’. And have taken a ‘see no evil, hear no evil’ type approach to that part of my body,” she said.

People don’t expect their apparently healthy bodies to break down, even in cases where there’s good reason to suspect they might. Diagnoses such as obesity, high cholestero­l and high blood pressure are the canaries in the coal mine.

An eventual patient may have been overweight and on medication for everyday conditions for some time. But people become inured to living with underlying conditions. No matter how hard one believes they are trying to improve their health before disaster strikes, they know afterwards that they weren’t trying hard enough.

When onset of early symptoms, it’s easy to rationalis­e them as something else. Back ache could be caused by a badly configured work chair, for instance. Allan put regular pain down to “driving, working long hours and the general stress of campaigns”. She tried running to help it.

A person’s self-image too plays a part. They may prefer to sort things out themselves without outside help. They may take pride in toughing out troubles. They may be used to swallowing stress rather than finding ways to release it. Other traps are an unrealisti­c hope it will be nothing, or just not wanting to face bad news. Or simply taking a while to accept the seriousnes­s of the situation. There may be the thought that “this will gradually come right”. Allan said she put off going to see a doctor, telling herself “that stuff usually sorts itself out”.

Once the problem has been found, the same resilience, defiance and positivity that can delay dealing with it, can conversely help get a patient through. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said: “Kiri is a person of determinat­ion, and . . . I can hear how focused she is on her treatment”.

With cancer, delays give the enemy time to grow and spread. Delays can mean the treatment to deal with it will be harder. The quicker medical advice is sought and treatment starts the better.

We must listen to what the body is telling us.

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