Opinion: Bowel cancer killed my friend Ness. This is what I learned.


On Thursday, I opened Facebook and found out my friend Ness died. She was only 40.

It was a shock, but it wasn’t a surprise. Ness was in palliative care. It was cancer. It’s always bloody cancer.

Immediately I scrolled the last messages we exchanged. The last one was her telling me to be kind and gentle with myself when I was having a bad time with my mental health earlier in the year. The one before was even more typically Ness.

“[That] reminds me of the numerous times I have tried to say cheers and thanks to customers and it’s come out CHANKS,” she replied to one of my Instagram posts.

I suddenly realised I’d actually only met Ness in person once. She worked at Palmerston North’s Centrepoint Theatre. I met her while touring a show there.

She’d walked into work that day to be greeted by a giant vulva that had been built for my set (it’s a long story). She was delighted. We were mates from that moment on.

We stayed in touch over the following five years on social media. I was overjoyed to see her find love. And gutted for her when she found out she had bowel cancer.

After surgery to remove the cancer, she proudly announced, via her blog, she now had a “Barbie butt”.

But she didn’t shy away from the hard truths of facing the c-word either.

“You don’t really get to be with me when I am crying on the toilet because everything hurts, or in the middle of the night when the 2am fears creep in. Nobody is that brave all the time,” she wrote in her blog.

She wanted people to stay in her life, and to stay real. After all, as she said, she only had “a touch of cancer”.

Her honesty in that writing is a gift to others that will go through similar experiences. It will keep her alive though her lovely, darling heart has stopped beating.

After a little, cruelly hopeful reprieve, the cancer spread, sprouting seeds in her liver and lungs.

In December, when it was becoming clear she wouldn’t be cured, she had a party for her 40th birthday. I wanted to go, but was worried she would think I was a vulture, going just because it was likely her last birthday.

It seems such a silly, selfish thought now. I wish I’d gone and hugged her and told her what I’m telling you now.

She talked in her blog about “that law of thermodynamics about how energy can’t be created or destroyed, it just changes form … when you die, whatever energy made you you just … gets redistributed into the universe”.

To me, that energy goes beyond just physics.

Ness had an energy for life that she only needed a brief moment to pass on to another person.

I took note of the messages from her friends on social media.

There were many from people just like me – they’d met her once and she’d had a profound impact on their lives. She was open-hearted.

I’m not like that. It takes a bit for me to let people in, properly. But what’s the point of that? We have room in our hearts for everyone, so why not let them in, just like Ness did?

She wasn’t a deity, she swore like a sailor and was a regular flawed human being like the rest of us. But she was a brilliant light in the world and it’s not fair that she and her Barbie butt aren’t going to be around anymore.

“I’m young. I’m madly in love. I should be picking out a song to dance to at my wedding, but more often than not I’m thinking of what song I want played at my funeral.”

She might have only lived for 40 years and five months, but she loved enough for 80, hell, 90 years. Isn’t that what life’s about?

That’s what I’ll remember, Ness.

*Ness’ blog can be read here. Ness’ family welcomes anyone to donate to Bowel Cancer NZ or your local hospice in her memory.

Bowel cancer possible symptoms

Bowel cancer is the second highest cause of cancer death in New Zealand. Each year, over 3000 New Zealanders are diagnosed with it and more than 1200 die from it. The incidence of bowel cancer in New Zealand is one of the highest in the world.

Ness would have wanted anyone experiencing possible symptoms of bowel cancer to get checked – even if it’s embarrassing.

• Bleeding from the bottom (rectal bleeding)
• Change of bowel motions/habits that come and go over several weeks
• Anaemia (low iron)
• Severe persistent or periodic abdominal pain
• A lump or mass in the abdomen
• Tiredness and loss of weight for no obvious reason

Source: Bowel Cancer NZ

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