Updated 07 March 2013

FW de Klerk speaks out about his cancer experience

Former president and Nobel Peace Prize winner, FW de Klerk knows exactly how colon cancer can affect someone. He was diagnosed with this type of cancer in 2006 and has been in remission for seven years now.

Former president and Nobel Peace Prize winner, FW de Klerk knows exactly how colon cancer can affect someone. He was diagnosed with this type of cancer in 2006 and has been in remission for seven years now. His surprise diagnosis has made him realise that this sensitive type of cancer needs to be discussed, and receive more public awareness.

Colorectal cancer is the cancer of the bowel, colon and rectum and is the fourth most common cancer in South Africa. While the disease is typically found in persons over the age of 50, colorectal cancer can affect anyone, regardless of gender or social status.

With this in mind, FW de Klerk is lending his voice in support of Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, which takes place, globally, in March, and is observed in South Africa during the month of April. He has also endorsed the "Ignoring a gut feeling?" campaign, which highlights the fact that physical gut feelings can be intuitive and should not be ignored.

Mr FW de Klerk was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2006 when he visited his physician. "I never knew that I was at risk for cancer. There was no cancer in my family. I went for my annual check-up just after I turned 70 and for the first time it was decided that I should have a colonoscopy. When I came out of the colonoscopy theatre, it was diagnosed, so it was like lightning striking out of the blue," says de Klerk.

'Don't wait too long'

Listening to your body and getting tested regularly can go a long way to fighting and overcoming this type of cancer. This is why Be Cancer Aware launched the "Ignoring a gut feeling?" campaign and each year strives to inform and change people’s attitudes towards this type of cancer, particularly during the months of March and April.

"I never had symptoms and when my colon cancer was discovered, I was advised that we should operate immediately," FW de Klerk says. His operation was a success and has been declared cancer-free for seven years now.

"My experience has not been bad. I did take chemo and the side effects weren’t all that bad. I’m very glad I did it. My advice is don’t wait too long. Make sure you undergo regular colonoscopies at regular intervals after the age of 40," says de Klerk.

Dr Demetriou, a practising oncologist at Wits Donald Gordon Oncology Centre in Johannesburg, agrees with FW de Klerk on this issue. "Don’t put off screenings because of what you might have heard about the procedure, or fear that you might have cancer. If we can detect this type of cancer early, remission and a cure is possible. Today we also have access to newer types of cancer treatment such as targeted therapy, which also play a huge role in the successful treatment of colorectal cancer. Nobody is exempt from getting this disease, so make sure your physician or doctor books you for a screening sooner rather than later."

The risk of being diagnosed with colorectal cancer begins at around age 50 and both men and women need to be screened. Risk factors can include poor diet, lack of exercise, obesity, family history of colorectal cancer and age, but that being said, it can affect anyone of any age, gender or race.

Some of the common symptoms include a change in bowel habit, blood in the stool and prolonged or ongoing pain but this isn’t always the case for everyone who gets colorectal cancer.

About Be Cancer Aware

Be Cancer Aware is a reliable source of information for those newly diagnosed with cancer. Together with resources such as a website, newsletter, and social media, Be Cancer Aware hopes to educate, support and encourage patients with appropriate information and resources.

On the Be Cancer Awareness website, you’ll find information, expert opinions, inspirational stories from patients and survivors and the latest news of local cancer activities.

Be Cancer Aware aim’s to offer quality cancer awareness and educational information to South Africans. Awareness of cancer is vital in the fight to reduce the burden of the disease and improve the lives of patients. BCA is supported by Roche Products (Pty) Ltd in the interest of cancer education and awareness.

About colorectal cancer

Colorectal cancer is a slow growing cancer that can be present for up to five years before showing symptoms . If diagnosed and treated early, colorectal cancer is treatable and, in many cases, is curable.

Symptoms of colorectal cancer include a change in bowel habit that lasts for more than a few weeks; blood in the stool or rectal bleeding; cramps; prolonged or on-going pain and discomfort in the abdominal area during, before or after bowel movement; unexplained weight loss; weakness, fatigue or exhaustion and the feeling of not being able to empty your bowel properly.

Colorectal cancer can be treated with four types of treatments – surgery, radiation, chemotherapy and biological therapy. Surgery is the most common treatment for all stages of colorectal cancer. Radiation is used to kill the cancer cells or stop them from growing. Chemotherapy forms one of the most widely used treatments and has the ability to shrink tumours. Finally, biological therapy is also used to treat cancer. This type of therapy uses the immune system to help fight a specific type of cancer. It identifies and attacks specific cancer cells without harming normal cells, and this is why it is also referred to as targeted therapy.

Some types of biological medicine can also prevent blood vessels from reaching the tumour, which starves the tumour and causes it to stop growing and shrink. This particular type of treatment is referred to as tumour starving therapy.

- (Be Cancer Aware press release)