PEER SUPPORT: Bowl cancer patient and Peer-to-Peer Support Network volunteer, Bobby McKeown.
PEER SUPPORT: Bowl cancer patient and Peer-to-Peer Support Network volunteer, Bobby McKeown.

Peer support changing bowel cancer conversations

IN ONE life he is an expert risk manager and in another Melbourne resident Bobby McKeown is a reluctant expert in understanding the impact of bowel cancer.

He's been through the journey, twice.

As a result, Bobby, 64, has come out of those journeys with what he describes as "peculiar" allergies, particularly when it comes to food. Onions is one example. It's amazing how many foods contain onion or onion flavouring.

It's his willingness to be open about his treatments and their outcomes, like his food allergies, that has led Bobby to become a vocal supporter of the work of Bowel Cancer Australia (BCA), and to volunteering with its Peer-to-Peer Support Network.

The informal network connects patients with similar treatment pathways so they can support each other and family members through the physical and mental trauma of this cancer, and help to raise awareness of bowel cancer and funds to assist BCA's work.

"They (BCA) put me with a mentor, someone who was further along the line than me. I was talking with that guy on quite a regular basis and it was really good.

"You can talk to all the nurses and doctors that you like," Bobby recounts in his broad northern England brogue. "But until you talk to somebody whose actually been there and done that, it's still very theoretical.

"You don't know if what is happening to you is normal. So, just to get that confirmation and to get advice on how they overcame a certain situation, I found it very good."

Bobby has taken that experience into the conversations he now has with other bowel cancer patients.

He's currently supporting a fellow, called John, who he meets in Sydney once a month when he is there on business. "The problems he has and the similarity to the problems I had mean that we get on like a house on fire," Bobby said. "We both like it because we can both talk quite openly."

While Bobby has been clear for three years, John's cancer has come back for a third time. Bobby is determined to remain by John's side.

Sometimes Bobby finds his peer contacts very reluctant to talk. But once he explains that he has "been there, experienced that" the conversation often opens up to become valuable to the patient.

Keeping well while remaining very busy with his work and volunteering is a challenge for Bobby. He visits a psychiatrist regularly to help him deal with what he calls his "guilt trips". "There are two sides to this," Bobby said. "Sometimes it's 'why me' and then sometimes it's 'poor me'."

He also survives on tablets, some 20 of them each day. His food allergies have forced him onto a White Diet - all white food - because he can't handle fibre. And now he's a diabetic.

Through all this Bobby is upbeat and remains enthusiastic about supporting the "great work" being done by the team at BCA.

He wants other bowel cancer patients to put their hand up to volunteer for the support network. Like Bobby, that person will probably find the support will end up going both ways.

For more information on Bowel Cancer Australia, go to www.bowelcanceraustralia.org.


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