'We thought it was an older person's disease'

Kindy teacher's bowel cancer death sparks parent's plea

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Nyree in hospital with nephews Mason and Xavier and niece Mila.

Nyree in hospital with nephews Mason and Xavier and niece Mila.

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Parent's plea after daughter's early bowel cancer death.

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EARLY CHILDHOOD educator Nyree Heading was working in her dream job as director of a preschool when the 33-year-old started suffering from severe back pain.

Nyree and her parents, Julie and David Heading, put the aches down to her years of playing softball and lifting children in her work -as a teacher at the Mimili Anangu School in the APY lands of far north-west South Australia and then as director of the Kaurnu Plains Children's Centre in Adelaide - where she was known affectionately as 'Aunty Nyree'.

Then tragically in September last year, scans revealed tumours and Nyree was diagnosed with aggressive malignant stage 4 bowel cancer that had spread to her bones, brain and lymph nodes. Within six months she would be dead.

"As older Australians, Julie and I knew about bowel cancer through the 50+ testing," said David.

"We thought it was an older person's disease, and never in our wildest dreams could we have imagined our daughter would fall victim to it at 33 years old.

'HAPPY PLACE': Nyree loved her work as director of the Kaurnu Plains Children's Centre in Adelaide.

'HAPPY PLACE': Nyree loved her work as director of the Kaurnu Plains Children's Centre in Adelaide.

"Reflecting back, her main symptom was severe backaches, which she believed were caused by the physical nature of playing softball and also from lifting children at the kindy where she worked," said Julie.

"She was also very tired and had one bout of bad migraine, which doctors put down to work stress. The only bowel cancer related symptom she was familiar with was blood in stools, which she never had."

After her diagnosis, Nyree became passionate about spreading awareness that you are #never2young to have bowel cancer, writing a detailed and sometimes confronting blog about her cancer journey.

Nyree trying bush tucker in APY lands in South Australia's far north.

Nyree trying bush tucker in APY lands in South Australia's far north.

"It was hard to understand and accept that Nyree was in hospital for about 100 days, basically most of that time having to lay on her back," said Julie.

Nyree passed away on February 17 this year, just one week after her 34th birthday.

"Since her passing, we have discovered so much more about our daughter's life," said Julie.

"Many people we did not know previously, have contacted us with stories about how Nyree had helped them in their time of need."

At her Celebration of Life service, the local Indigenous community offered a smoking ceremony and didgeridoo performance to acknowledge her contributions to the centre.

In a heartfelt Facebook post after her death, her parents described how Nyree was loved by all who knew her.

"A Beautiful Life, Full of Light and Love. That ended too soon," they wrote.

"A kindy teacher who ignited the spark of life-long learning in all the children under her care - that was her happy place."

"Through Nyree's blog and Facebook page 'I won't bowel down to cancer' we now realise how many younger people have been diagnosed with this cruel disease," David said.

"We want people to know that there are other symptoms, not only blood in stools - things like backaches, tiredness, headaches.

Julie plaiting her daughter Nyree's hair in hospital.

Julie plaiting her daughter Nyree's hair in hospital.

"Even though these can be related to other problems, we want people to insist their doctors check thoroughly, to rule out the possibility of bowel cancer."

Know the symptoms

According to colorectal surgeon and Bowel Cancer Australia Director Dr Graham Newstead AM, not everyone experiences symptoms, particularly in the early stages of bowel cancer.

Common symptoms of bowel cancer can include:

  • A recent, persistent change in bowel habit
  • A change in shape or appearance of your poo
  • Blood in your poo or rectal bleeding
  • Frequent gas pain, cramps
  • Unexplained anaemia
  • A feeling that the bowel has not emptied completely after going to the toilet
  • Pain or a lump in the anus or rectum
  • Abdominal pain or swelling

"Although these symptoms may be suggestive of bowel cancer, they can also be due to other medical conditions, some foods or medicines," said Dr Newstead.

"Importantly, if you are experiencing any of the described symptoms for two weeks or more, you shouldn't delay in talking to your GP, because when diagnosed early almost 99 per cent of cases can be successfully treated."

To find out more about bowel cancer or to speak with a Bowel Care Nurse, visit www.bowelcanceraustralia.org or call the free Helpline 1800 555 494.

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