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Bowel cancer survivor sees scars as badges of honour

At just 30, Tamsyn Cornwall was facing the words no one wants to hear - “you have cancer”.


Ominously she’d been asked to bring a support person with her to meet with her doctor – even though strict Covid-19 restrictions were in place at the time.


Her doctor had bad news - she had stage 3B bowel cancer.



“Being told I had cancer was very confronting and all these feelings kind of came over me,” she said.


“There’s just so much fear that comes with the word ‘cancer’ and being so confronted with death.”


Tamsyn had suffered from inflammatory bowel disease for many years, but had never expected a cancer diagnosis, especially so young.


She had noticed a recent uptick in symptoms – extreme tiredness and nausea - and was finding that her usual pain medication wasn’t cutting it.


Her bowel cancer was confirmed after polyps were discovered during a colonoscopy, and subsequent testing.


Due to a high risk of it spreading, the doctors told her that her entire colon needed to be removed, rather than the localised area.


An ileostomy was also performed as part of her surgery, which created an external stoma, or bag, to manage the removal of waste from her body.


At first, she had a lot of anxiety about it – but with support, Tamsyn found strength.


"I definitely feel strong, and I’m really proud of my body - I think it’s amazing how much a body can go through, and how resilient our bodies are."

Tamsyn Cornwall - Bowel cancer survivor


Tamsyn began to reach out to others who could understand her condition – including people involved with Bowel Cancer New Zealand.


“I joined one of their Facebook groups, and at first it was kind of hard to read what other people were going through, yet at the same time it was comforting, because you knew that you weren’t alone,” Tamsyn said.


“I was able to get free counselling and physio after my last surgery through Bowel Cancer New Zealand, and I am so grateful to have had those services because they made such a difference.


“I felt really listened to and I felt very supported – I didn’t have to explain what I was going through – they already knew.”




Bowel Cancer New Zealand (BCNZ) is an advocate for increased screening, and a supportive ear for those going through treatment.


BCNZ Nurse Support Coordinator Victoria Thompson says people of any age, and from any sector of society can find themselves with colon cancer, and that it’s important to keep an eye out for symptoms.

Nurse Victoria Thompson.

Nurse Victoria Thompson.


Bowel cancer is a killer in New Zealand – it is the second most common cause of cancer death in the country, with about 3000 Kiwis diagnosed each year, and 1200 dying from it.


“It’s a big, quite prevalent cancer within New Zealand – it’s actually about the same as prostate and breast cancer, if you combined their numbers.”


However, with early detection, about 90 per cent of bowel cancers can be treated, and even cured.


Victoria said a colonoscopy is the only real way to find out if someone has bowel cancer.


“It is the gold standard to find out what's actually going on within your bowel - it's also a preventative measure, because anything that's found in the bowel can then be removed and biopsied at that time.


“Being aware of your own bowel health is as important as any of the screening measure that are out there – knowing what your normal is, so that you know when it’s not normal, is hugely important.”


Being a charity, BCNZ is always in need of funding, and does not receive any from the government.


“The money coming into the charity either comes from our major fundraisers throughout the year, from donations, and from grants from various organisations,” Victoria says.


“We have some incredibly generous major donors, like the ANZ New Zealand Staff Foundation.”


Over the past two years, the Foundation has provided about $20,000 in funding, which goes towards staff wages and counselling sessions, as well as financial help for those undergoing treatment.

Victoria and Tamsyn share a moment after a swim in Auckland.

Victoria and Tamsyn share a moment after a swim in Auckland.




After recovering from her surgery, Tamsyn decided to be positive – to not be afraid of celebrating the fact she was still alive.


She was open about the fact she was going through treatment, and even posted pictures of herself on Instagram going for a swim – with her stoma pouch visible above her bikini.


“I almost felt a responsibility, to my younger self, because it shouldn’t be taboo to talk about this,” Tamsyn says.


“It can be uncomfortable to talk about our bowel habits, and that kind of thing, but ultimately, I feel like our health is number one, and living is so beautiful – so it’s just so important to have those chats.”


After having her ostomy removed and replaced with an internal pouch in 2021, Tamsyn was left with scars on her abdomen – but those are like badges of honour to her.


“Instead of my scars being weird, or my ostomy being different, I was like - this is beautiful proof that I still exist,” she says.


“I think my scars are so cool.”



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