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Jackie and Becki’s bowel cancer battle: ‘We’re not going to be statistics’

Best friends Jackie Robertson and Becki Ross are fighting bowel cancer together
Jackie and Becki standing in front of a hedgePictures: Juliette Drysdale

Waikato besties Jackie Robertson and Becki Ross always have plenty to chat about on the phone most days. Both are single mums and career women in their forties, who love being physically active. They’re witty, determined and optimistic – and they also have stage four colon cancer.

“When Bex and I were diagnosed, we were both such fit, strong, active women, so it was a real shock,” says Jackie, 46, a mum to 12-year-old Zac, who is nonverbal autistic. “But I totally believe in the power of the mind and the minute you give in to something, you accept it. I told Bex, ‘We’re not going to be a statistic!’”

Jackie and Becki walking down a gravel path together

The beginning of their friendship

The duo first met through the rowing community in 2010, however, it wasn’t until a mutual friend of Becki mentioned Jackie was also going through colon cancer treatment that they reconnected in January.

“I reached out to Jackie and we’ve been in touch almost daily since,” says Becki, 43, who’s a mum to Maddi, 16, and Jackson, 15. “We’re bright and bubbly, and laugh about a lot, but deep down, we’re terrified of the unknown. It’s a really scary situation at our age and being on our own with children. We can share our fears and know the other gets it.”

Part of the pair’s struggle is the gruelling chemotherapy, which causes side effects including exhaustion, thinning hair, sore cracked lips, mouth ulcers and headaches. Jackie is four rounds ahead of Becki and prepares her friend for what’s ahead.

“We laugh about how chemo is the gift that keeps on giving,” jokes Jackie, ex-wife of Olympic rower Eric Murray. “I’ve run marathons and been wiped at the end, but the fatigue you get from chemo is another level! When we have down days, we can vent to each other.”

Pre-diagnosis, sporty Becki was head of PE at a private school in Hamilton for six years, while Jackie was running 16km every day and working as a product manager. Both women had to leave the jobs they enjoyed because of the unpredictability of cancer and chemo.

Jackie and Becki leaning on a fence, smiling at the camera

Jackie’s journey

It was back in 2022 when Jackie first went to her GP for haemorrhoids and a colonoscopy was suggested. But after her symptoms were managed and blood tests came back normal, she just carried on with life.

“In October 2023, after my last marathon, I told my GP I felt a bit flat and wanted a vitamin B12 injection,” recalls Jackie. “She wouldn’t give it to me willy-nilly and said I had to do bloods. I got the results and my liver enzymes were nuts. My GP is fantastic and sent me for a scan because she felt uneasy.”

Jackie collapsed when she heard she had colorectal cancer that had spread to her liver. She knew the cancer spreading meant stage four, since her mother had fought breast cancer.

“I never smoked or did drugs and I hardly ever drank alcohol. My liver should’ve been the healthiest organ in my body!” says Jackie. Her biggest tumour on her liver measured 10cm.

“I just went numb. I froze. Having stage four cancer despite showing no symptoms felt like a bad joke.”

Jackie swapped running for a daily walk, knowing her body needed every ounce of energy to fight, while cutting out dairy, gluten, processed sugar and red meat.

Jackie with her chemo bags and machines
Before cancer, Jackie used to run 16km a day.

Becki’s battle

For Becki, it was last July when she visited her GP about heavy bleeding and dull lower back pain.

“But my bloods came back normal and I hadn’t lost weight, so I was sent away with haemorrhoid cream, even though I didn’t have any visible,” recalls Becki, who returned to A&E four months later after another bleeding episode.

“I asked for a colonoscopy because my gut said it was something else and I was reluctantly referred. But when my mum caught wind I’d been to A&E, she found a private specialist, spending four and a half grand getting me a colonoscopy for Christmas.”

Becki had the procedure a day after she finished work for the school year in December. Doctors found cancerous polyps and a large tumor in her colon. Although they initially offered the teacher of 20 years surgery, specialists soon discovered the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes. Since it was too close to vital organs, they couldn’t operate.

“Once they’re in the lymph nodes, the cancer can spread everywhere, so it’s about trying to keep that controlled,” says Becki, who started chemo immediately. “It just threw me. If I went through the public system, I’d probably still be waiting for a colonoscopy.”

She was put on the cancer drug Avastin, which isn’t government-funded and costs around $5000 every two weeks. Luckily, Becki has the support of loved ones who fundraised for her treatment so she can add time to her life.

Becki laying on a chemo bed holding two thumbs up
Becki’s determined to beat the odds.

Treating the disease

“When you’re in a situation like Bex and I, and you have to pay to live, it’s bloody wrong,” says Jackie. “We don’t need financial stress on top of what we’re going through. What’s really hard is the amount of people under 50 getting diagnosed. We need to lower the bowel screening age like we have for pap smears.”

Now the women are focused on beating the odds. Recently Jackie’s tumour markers came down considerably, while Becki is responding well to treatment.

“A scan showed two tiny specks on my spine and lower vertebra that were scar tissue,” tells Jackie. “I was told it was cancer cells that would’ve gone into my bones if my doctor hadn’t been onto it. Now they’re gone. My oncologist is pushing my scans out to every few months too because I think he’s feeling quite confident.”

Two images side by side. One is a selfie of Jackie walking outside while her chest is covered in tubes and plasters, and the other is of her medication bottle covered in writing about beating cancer
Jackie’s treatment is not cheap. “You don’t need financial stress on top of what we’re going through,” she says.

Becki’s bleeding and lower back ache stopped instantly when she started treatment, and apart from the effects of chemo, she doesn’t feel like someone who has cancer.

“My oncologist is lovely and said there’s always hope, and he shared stories about people who’ve fought the odds,” Becki concludes. “That was really powerful because I’m not ready to tap out yet. I’ve got two kids I want to see grow up. I want to see who they become and what they do with their lives. I’ve still got way too much to achieve in my life.”

June is Bowel Cancer Awareness Month. More than 1200 Kiwis die of bowel cancer every year, as many as breast and prostate cancer combined. But it shouldn’t be this way – bowel cancer is preventable and treatable if caught early. Take action at bowelcancernz.org.nz.

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