Who is Jodi Lee?
Jodi and I had been married for 10 years when we moved to Vietnam in 2006. We were two years into a wonderful experience and having the time of our lives. Our two young children were having a wonderful time too. We were almost pinching ourselves thinking ‘how good is this’.
I was away working when Jodi rang me complaining of constipation, abdominal pain and some bloating. The next morning, her doctor recognised an obstruction in Jodi’s bowel and ordered some scans. The results came in at about 3pm that afternoon. Jodi had bowel cancer and the tumour had all but blocked her bowel. She was 39 years old.
Jodi was diagnosed with Stage IV bowel cancer, the most advanced stage. The cancer had spread to her lymph node and liver. She had at best two years to live.
Jodi passed away on Jan. 16, 2010 leaving her family and friends devastated.
In 2010 I set up The Jodi Lee Foundation. From our experience came a massive opportunity to try and make something good out of an awful situation. I don’t want anyone else to go through what Jodi and I went through.
I feel like there’s a huge part of Jodi in The Jodi Lee Foundation. The values of the foundation are values that we held dear in our relationship — integrity, vitality and transparency. At the end of the day there’s not nearly enough awareness about bowel cancer. We are helping to change that.
What is bowel cancer and what are the symptoms?
Colorectal cancer, commonly known as colon cancer or bowel cancer, is a cancer from uncontrolled cell growth in the colon or rectum. Most colorectal cancer occurs due to lifestyle and increasing age with only a minority of cases associated with underlying genetic disorders. It typically starts in the lining of the bowel and if left untreated, can grow into the muscle layers underneath, and then through the bowel wall.
1) Bleeding from your bottom or blood in your stools, even if only occasional
2) A persistent change in bowel habits, like going to the toilet more frequently, diarrhoea-like motions, or feeling that the bowel does not empty completely
3) Stools that are narrower than usual
4) Frequent gas pains, bloating, fullness or cramps
5) Persistent, severe abdominal pain, which has come on recently for the first time
6) A lump in your tummy or rectum
7) Unexplained feelings of tiredness, breathlessness and low energy
8) Unexplained weight loss or vomiting
Unfortunately, by the time many of these symptoms show it is too late, as was the case with Jodi.
I do not have a medical background so all my comments about the disease come from my experience and own research. They should not be taken as medical advice!
Research shows that bowel cancer is due to lifestyle and increasing age, and mostly occurs in developed countries. Are Vietnamese people at high risk of getting bowel cancer?
Some of the funds that we raise through this event will go to the Ho Chi Minh City Oncology Hospital. Our contact is Doctor Pham Xuan Dung who is the deputy director of the hospital. I also found a link (www.cancerscreening.nhs.uk/bowel/publications/the-facts-vietnamese.pdf) that contains facts for Vietnam, but as it is in Vietnamese I am unable to read it.
While BC rates are lower in Vietnam than Australia, there are still Vietnamese [people] dying from BC and therefore it is a concern requiring focus and investment. Lifestyle and diet are contributors to BC [and] as Vietnam becomes more westernised, the prevalence of BC is likely to increase. It is important that we start the education process now to minimise the impact.
I also understand first-hand the impact that this disease can have on a family. The cost of treatment and need for care is a huge burden for families to carry. I know this is very important in the mindset of Vietnamese. That is, Vietnamese are highly fearful of becoming a burden to their family.
Why does Australia have the highest incidence of bowel cancer?
While further research is required to give a definitive answer to this question there is no doubt that obesity levels, lack of fibre in diets and the high consumption of cooked red meat play an important role.
How did the Little Black Dress become the symbol for the foundation?
Shortly after Jodi and I left Vietnam in 2008 to go back to South Australia to begin Jodi’s treatment, some great friends in Vietnam wanted to do something to help. They decided to plan a cocktail party as a fundraiser. They wanted to have a theme and they decided that a ‘little black dress’ was the best theme that was most closely associated with Jodi.
Jodi loved going out to dinner or special occasions in a little black dress. So the idea was born in Vietnam and we loved the idea so much that we have applied it to the foundation events following the Vietnam party.
Where in Vietnam can one go to get screened for bowel cancer? How accessible is screening for people all over Vietnam?
Good question. I hope Doctor Pham Xuan Dung can help with this question. I will let you know.
Can one change their lifestyle to decrease the risks of contracting bowel cancer?
Yes. It really comes down to combating some of the factors I referred to above. For example, eating plenty of fibre through a diet high in fruit and vegetables, controlling your weight, exercising and watching your intake of cooked red meat. Medical researchers find it difficult to explain Jodi’s case. She was young, fit, had a good diet and no family history.
Having a direct family history does increase your chances of contracting the disease. This however amounts to less than 10 percent of cases in Australia.
For the fundraiser Ride For The LBD... Vietnam, will you be trying to educate people along the way in your eight-day tour?
Absolutely. We will be talking to as many people as practical about the importance of screening for BC on our ride. We find that wearing a little black dress and jerseys promoting the early detection message will help promote a conversation and raise awareness. We will be generating as much publicity as we can in both Vietnam and Australia.
We will also hold a celebration on Aug. 10 where we will also raise awareness about this important issue. We know education is a key factor in motivating people to screen and we will push this as hard as we can.
The foundation’s goal is to raise AUS$120,000 (VND2.7 billion) to promote awareness. How will the JLF spend the money to do this in Vietnam?
We have not determined at this stage how funds raised will be split between Australia and Vietnam. We will certainly be contributing funds to Vietnam. The money raised for Australia will go behind our four initiatives to raise awareness and encourage early detection. At this stage I would say that the Vietnam funds will go to support the bowel cancer work of the Ho Chi Minh City Oncology Hospital.
How connected to Vietnam is the foundation in the long term?
Vietnam will always hold a very special place for the foundation and me. We have amazing memories of Vietnam and it is the place that Jodi was diagnosed. We are already planning another event for Vietnam in April next year.
To learn more about the foundation and bowel cancer visit www.jodileefoundation.org.au