Diet of fruit and veg didn't make Harris Farm's Cathy Harris immune to bowel cancer

  • JENNIFER SEXTON, THE SUNDAY TELEGRAPH, JUNE 16, 2013

Cathy Harris has become an advocate for bowel cancer awareness after ignoring a doctor's advice to take a simple test and ending up with the cancer. Picture: Richard Dobson Source: The Sunday Telegraph

It was a simple test that could have saved NRL commissioner Cathy Harris six months of agonising chemotherapy.

Just a day before being diagnosed with bowel cancer, the 63-year-old co-founder of fresh produce retailer Harris Farm was running around a park in her fitness class.

The next night, sudden tummy pains began and were excruciating by 2am. By 7am emergency surgery to remove a cancerous tumour had begun.

"I had no idea. I felt fabulous. I was exercising in the park," Ms Harris said. "We live on fruit and veg, it's our business, it's our life."

Ms Harris believes she could have avoided the worst if only she had listened to her doctor.

A year before he had recommended a colonoscopy. When she declined he sent her home with a screening test kit called a Faecal Occult Blood Test.

But Ms Harris, who with her husband David owns 22 Harris Farm fresh produce outlets, thought she had no reason to be tested. "I put it in the bathroom cupboard and forgot about it," Ms Harris said.

Now she has joined with advertising entrepreneur John Singleton to raise awareness about the disease. It kills 11 people a day in Australia, but if caught early has one of the highest cure rates.

John Singleton has been a bowel cancer awareness campaigner since losing 39-year-old mate Bob Cornish to the cancer 30 years ago.

Mr Singleton has funded new research for the Gut Foundation showing 25 per cent of 40 to 49-year-olds tested positive to cancer or polyps and 20 per cent of those had a significant lesion.

Cathy Harris has become an advocate for bowel cancer awareness after ignoring a doctor's advice to take a simple test and ending up with the cancer. Picture: Richard Dobson

When Ms Harris's cancer was discovered it was stage three - four being the worst - and had spread to her lymph glands.

"My poor husband fell apart much more than I did. I think it shook the kids too," she said. "If I had the test early I would probably have still had to have an operation, but I probably would not have had to go through chemotherapy, and let me tell you, that's the worst bit."

January was spent at a beach house crowded with her family.

"I never once thought I would die," she said. "It never crossed my mind for a minute."."

But once the chemo began, making her ill and attacking her liver, the tears flowed for the first time. "I was standing in the shower and clumps of my hair started falling out. It was the first time I started to cry," she said.

On Friday night Ms Harris took her last chemo tablet and next week will know whether it has cleared her of cancer.

"I am not going to flog myself about not having the test, but if I can give other people a message it would be 'Don't be a dill'."

Mr Singleton has been an advocate for subsidised testing from age 40 since losing 39-year-old mate Bob Cornish to cancer 30 years ago.

"If you start screening for bowel cancer from age 40, more Australians - hundreds if not thousands - could be saved the pain and suffering that accompanies a bowel cancer diagnosis," Mr Singleton said.

Cathy Harris is very pleased to report that she is now cancer free. Feb 2014.