Sadly, on June 28, 2022, Dame Deborah James died after a long battle with bowel cancer. She was described as an “inspiration” and “amazing” for her work informing the public about living with bowel cancer on BBC Radio 5 Live’s award-winning podcast, alongside raising millions for bowel cancer charities.
Bowel cancer is cancer that begins in the large bowel, and depending on its origin this cancer can be called rectal or colon cancer. This cancer is actually one of the most common types diagnosed in the UK, and excluding skin cancer is the third most diagnosed in the United States.
It is uncertain what causes bowel cancer, but it is more likely to occur in older people. It has also been linked to eating a diet with a lot of processed meat and red meat, being overweight or obese, drinking too much alcohol, smoking cigarettes, or having a history of polyps that can grow into tumors.
One of the main campaign messages that Dame Deborah James advocated for was for people to check their poo, as 90 percent of people with bowel cancer had symptoms that can be seen during the trip to the toilet. Some symptoms include:
- A continual change in bowel habits, including looser/ runnier poos, more frequent poos, and sometimes abdominal pain.
- Blood in the poo or from the rectum that does not have any obvious causes, like hemorrhoids. Dark red or black blood in the poo may come from the stomach or bowel. Bright red blood could be from piles (swollen blood vessels) but may also be a symptom of bowel cancer.
- Constipation. This could be caused by blockages in the bowel.
- Food consumption causing abdominal pain, bloating, and discomfort. Sometimes this can cause a reduction in the amount of food that the person eats and causes weight loss.
So, when you have a poo, have a good look in the toilet.
Other non-poop-related symptoms may be dizziness or tiredness, a lump in the abdomen, lost weight, or the person feeling like they haven’t emptied their bowels properly after a poo.
People should not be scared if they have any of these symptoms, as it could be caused by other reasons, but it is recommended to go see a general practitioner when they have had any of the symptoms mentioned above for three or more weeks.
Typically, the doctor will examine the stomach and rectum to ensure that there are no suspicious lumps and bumps. Tests can also be performed to check that there are no serious causes for the symptoms – this may include a blood test to look for iron deficiency anemia, which could be due to bleeding in the bowel. Other tests may include a colonoscopy, which is where a camera is inserted to look at the bowel.
In the UK, a home test is part of the NHS screening process. This test can be conducted at home, sent to the relevant address, and the results can then identify any blood that is hidden in poo.
Early diagnosis is key, as over 90 percent of people diagnosed early will survive for five years or more – but this decreases if first detected at later stages.
Luckily, the chances of survival of this cancer have increased due to recent medical interventions. Treatments are becoming more advanced and personalized.
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