George Calombaris' family battle with bowel cancer

We spoke to acclaimed chef and MasterChef judge, George Calombaris, to find out why bowel cancer is an issue so close to his heart.

George Calombaris’s father (Jim) has been diagnosed with bowel cancer twice. 

First in the 70s when George was six and once again 10 years later. “At six you’re a bit oblivious to it all,” George says. “I have a four-year-old son and they’re so resilient, nothing really fazes them.

“It [only] dawned on me with that second diagnosis. It wasn’t so much the operation and seeing Dad go through that, it was the chemotherapy that really struck a chord with me, going with him and sitting beside him… and seeing him deteriorate… It’s a very unpleasant thing.”
As an ambassador for Bowel Cancer Australia, George knows that talking about his family’s experience with bowel cancer can help bring wider attention to bowel cancer.
 
“Dad just fought through it, ‘I’m not going anywhere’,” he says. “I remember him leaving the house when Mum was taking him in to the operation and I was in tears. I remember looking at him saying ‘Please don’t leave us because we need you’. And he said ‘I’m not going anywhere, I’ll be back soon’. As a 16-year-old boy – you need your Dad. That was tough to see him go through that.”

Family history of bowel cancer

According to Bowel Cancer Australia, most men who develop bowel cancer have no family history of the disease. However, having relatives - especially parents, brothers or sisters - with bowel cancer means that you have an increased risk of developing bowel cancer.

George asked some questions and found out his family had been touched by bowel cancer before. “I didn’t realise my grandmother – Dad’s mum – she died when I was three or four – had bowel cancer too. So I was starting to piece all these things together, which for me was a reality check to go ‘Hey, I need to do something about this personally’.”

Bowel cancer is the second most commonly diagnosed cancer in Australia, with more than 17,000 Australians  diagnosed each year. It is slightly more common in men than women with about one in 20 men and one in 28 women being diagnosed with bowel cancer by the time they are 75. Bowel cancer doesn’t discriminate and it can occur at any age, however it is most common in people older than 50. 

George believes bowel cancer does not receive the attention it should. “It’s not fashionable,” he says. “If there is such a thing as fashionable cancers it ain’t one. It’s the bowel. It doesn’t get the attention it needs... So if I can do something, something little.”

Becoming two-and-a-half men

A few factors in George’s life coalesced into a heightened awareness of his own health. On top of his family history of bowel cancer, there were years of poor eating in his job, what he calls the “chef’s diet” of unhealthy food late at night after work.

And becoming a father sharpened his focus. “A big light bulb turned on, and part of that light bulb was my kids. I thought ‘Hang on, I’ve got a bigger responsibility here and I want to be around for a long time and not just be around but I want to be able to kick the footy with them and run around with them and keep up… I want my kids to look up to their Dad’.”

George started eating healthier foods and embraced the Mediterranean diet. He also exercises regularly, both running and playing soccer with his old school mates. His svelte new body inspired fellow Masterchef host Matt Preston to describe the show’s three hosts as “two-and-a-half men”.
Masterchefs' Gary Mehigan, Matt Preston and George Calombaris taking a selfie

Life is about hurdles

Jim Calambaris is now 78. “We’re both avid Melbourne Victory supporters,” George says. “[A while back] it was the FFA Cup final on Saturday, fantastic night, we got to celebrate another trophy in the cabinet. It was nice to have him there cheering along. Halfway through the game the two of us are arguing about some player that he reckons isn’t good enough and we’re talking about all this – and that’s wonderful.”

How does Jim reflect on his battle with bowel cancer? “I don’t think he does. I think he thinks ‘It was a hurdle I had to jump and I jumped it’. Dad’s (philosophy) is ‘Life is about hurdles and you’ll jump them’. I think he’s an absolute legend. You could have given up after the second time.”

George says men have traditionally been less good at an awareness of their own health. “We need to be better. I think we’re getting better. The problem with men is that we think we’re made of steel and we’re not.”

George’s take out message about bowel cancer? “Get yourself checked out. Prevention is better than cure.”
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