Deborah James announced on social media this week that she has moved to hospice-at-home care as her “body simply isn’t playing ball” after being diagnosed with cancer in 2016.
The teacher, known for co-hosting the award-winning BBC podcast ‘You, Me and the Big C’, has raised more than £3.5million for charity through her Bowelbabe fundraiser – which she launched while confirming her “rollercoaster ride is coming to an end very soon”.
Her fears were confirmed when she was diagnosed with stage 3 bowel cancer despite only being aged 35.
The news came as a shock for James, as she was also a vegetarian, not overweight and didn’t smoke.
Initially, Deborah’s blood tests and stool sample did not raise any red flags, leading her GP to suspect she may have irritable bowel syndrome, reports Wales Online.
James wrote: “And yet I was still losing weight, passing blood, going what felt like 100 times per day and feeling shattered.
“I knew there was something wrong with me.”
However, the mum-of-two paid privately for a colonoscopy. This led to her starting treatment after an “ugly 5.5cm cancerous, ulcerated tumour” was found.
Bowel cancer is the UK’s second most deadly form of cancer, and is the fourth most common to be diagnosed nationwide. It affects the large bowel – made up of the colon and the rectum – and mainly develops from pre-cancerous growths called polyps.
Nearly 43,000 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer every year in the UK and there are currently around 268,000 people living with it in the UK today. Some of the main questions about the condition, the telltale signs and treatment options available are answered below.
Here is what to know about bowel cancer symptoms, treatment options, and when to seek medical attention.
What are the main symptoms of bowel cancer?
The symptoms of bowel cancer can include:
- Bleeding from your bottom and/or blood in your bowel movements
- A persistent and unexplained change in bowel habit
- Unexplained weight loss
- Extreme tiredness for no obvious reason
- A pain or lump in your tummy
Most people with these symptoms don’t have bowel cancer, and other health problems can cause similar symptoms. But if you have one or more of these, or if things just don’t feel right, go to see your GP.
Sometimes a tumour can block the bowel, causing sudden strong pains in the stomach area, bloating and feeling or being sick. This is called a bowel obstruction.
You may also be unable to empty your bowels or pass wind. If you think you have a blocked bowel, see your GP straight away or go to a hospital accident and emergency department.
There are several possible causes of bleeding from your bottom or blood in your bowel movements. Bright red blood may come from swollen blood vessels (haemorrhoids or piles) in your back passage.
It may also be caused by bowel cancer – dark red or black blood may come from your bowel or stomach. Tell your doctor about any bleeding so they can find out what is causing it.
2. Change in bowel habit
Tell your GP if you have noticed any persistent and unexplained changes in your bowel habit, especially if you also have bleeding from your back passage. You may have looser stools and you may need to go to the toilet more often than normal.
You may feel as though you’re not going to the toilet often enough. Or you might feel as though you’re not fully emptying your bowels.
3. Weight loss
This is less common than some of the other symptoms, but speak to your GP if you have lost weight and you don’t know why. You may not feel like eating if you feel sick, bloated or if you just don’t feel hungry.
Bowel cancer may lead to a lack of iron in the body, which can cause anaemia (lack of red blood cells). If you have anaemia, you are likely to feel very tired and your skin may look pale.
5. Pain or lump
You may have pain or a lump in your stomach area (abdomen) or back passage. See your GP if these symptoms don’t go away or if they’re affecting how you sleep or eat.
What else could it be?
Most people with these symptoms do not have bowel cancer, but if you have one or more or if things don’t feel right, visit your GP. Your symptoms could be caused by other common conditions that can be treated or controlled by your GP, such as:
- Piles (haemorrhoids)
- Anal fissures
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Diverticular disease
- Crohn’s disease
- Ulcerative colitis
What factors increase my risk of getting bowel cancer?
The factors that increase the risk of bowel cancer are much the same as with any cancer. Smoking, an unhealthy diet high in processed meat, a lack of exercise, obesity and alcohol will all increase the risk.
Bowel Cancer UK lists the highest risk factors as follows:
- Aged over 50
- A strong family history of bowel cancer
- A history of non-cancerous growths (polyps) in your bowel
- Longstanding inflammatory bowel disease such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis
- Type 2 diabetes
- An unhealthy lifestyle
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How can I reduce my chances of developing bowel cancer?
Scientists believe around half (54%) of all bowel cancers could be prevented by having a healthier lifestyle. Eat healthily with lots of vegetables and a diet high in fibre, avoid processed meat, don’t smoke, avoid alcohol or do not exceed the recommended limits, take regular exercise and keep weight within a normal BMI range.
Who can use a home test kit to screen for bowel cancer?
Generally, anyone aged 60 and above will be sent a home test kit every two years. You may also be given one if you have a family history of bowel cancer.
The home test kit is not generally given if you start having symptoms of bowel cancer. A referral for hospital investigations would be more useful at that point.
What should a medical professional do upon recognising the red flag symptoms of bowel cancer?
A referral to a bowel cancer specialist is needed, and investigations should be undertaken. These might include a flexible sigmoidoscopy, a colonoscopy or a CT scan.
Surgery is normally always required. This may also be backed up with chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy.
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