The incredible courage of Dame Deborah James has touched us all. Many of us following her on social media having first heard her on ‘The You, Me and Big C’ BBC podcast.
She was diagnosed with stage 4 bowel cancer at the age of 35. Stage 4 cancer is the stage when it is incurable, having spread to distant body parts. Meaning the aim of treatment is to keep the cancer at bay, limit spread, manage symptoms and try to keep patients living their life in the fullest way possible.
Those who followed her story know she did just that. In amongst the glamourous photos, fundraising and making memories with her children, she received treatment and had countless surgeries to make it possible for her to live a little longer.
Whist there is no doubt treatment has come on leaps and bounds, stage 4 is the stage no-one wants to get to. Debs has spoken candidly over the last 5 years about her symptoms and treatment. Initially saying she has the “brown cancer, the poo-cancer”, eluding to the taboo of speaking about our bowel habits.
But, and this is the big but. We need to get to a point where nobody is diagnosed so late.
Debs has often spoken of her health anxieties, she used to see her GP often due to this. When she first noticed blood in her stool she sought review, saying she was worried about bowel cancer. Stress, and anxiety can trigger or exacerbate IBS symptoms, her symptoms were put down to this on not one, but three occasions.
Through raising awareness I have been lucky enough to speak with Debs over the years and she tells me she requested her own investigations privately in the end as her symptoms were progressing and she was scared.
She asked me as a GP to ask in detail about symptoms, to look at photos of the blood as she feels this helps, to listen. And to remember you are never to young to be affected.
And this is why she has spent the last 5 years looking to change the narrative.
Bowel cancer is thought to be a disease predominantly affecting older adults. Over recent years new cases over the age of 50 are actually going down. It is presenting in younger adults and often at a later stage. The reason being both patients and health professionals are likely to put symptoms down to other causes, such as IBS, haemorrhoids, food intolerances. This leads to a longer lag time between onset of symptoms and diagnosis.
Changing trends in diet and lifestyle are also likely to play a part. There has also been a suggestion that more antibiotics being used in early life, or in the food chain, could be contributing.
Let’s keep Dame Deborah’s legacy alive by speaking up if we are worried about our bowels, using the word ‘poo’ and normalizing it, and when invited to bowel screening to complete it.
Please see our page on bowel cancer for common symptoms, whilst Deb’s presentation included visible blood, this is not always present. As a rule of thumb, if you have any changes which are unusual, different to your norm, and they last over three weeks – you need to see a health professional.