A Bowel Cancer Warrior Creates Change
- BBC podcast host Deborah James, 40, is bravely fighting stage 4 bowel cancer. She was first diagnosed in 2016, and she’s now on hospice care.
- But education and advocacy has always been a priority for the cancer warrior. Most recently, she inspired a major British retailer to introduce new toilet paper packaging in September that would list five symptoms of bowel cancer to look out for as part of a partnership with the charity Bowel Cancer UK.
- Bowel cancer is a general term for cancer that begins in the large bowel, but generally we use the term colorectal cancer in the United States.
- Possible symptoms of bowel cancer to look out for include a change in bowel habits, a feeling that you need to have a bowel movement that’s not relieved by having one, rectal bleeding, blood in the stool, cramping or belly pain, weakness and fatigue and unintended weight loss.
James, from London, has been living with bowel cancer, also known as colorectal cancer, for a long time. She was first diagnosed with stage 4 bowel cancer in 2016 and has since dubbed herself the “Bowel Babe” on Instagram where she’s shared the details of her journey. She’s also documented her journey on the BBC podcast You, Me and the Big C and articles for The Sun.Read More
She’s now on hospice care at her parents’ house instead of her home with husband, Sebastian Bowen, and their two children (Hugo, 14, and Eloise, 12) in London, trying to make crucial memories while also teaching others about bowel cancer.
Most recently, she inspired major British retailer Marks & Spencer to introduce new toilet paper packaging in September that would list five symptoms of bowel cancer to look out for as part of a partnership with the charity Bowel Cancer UK.
“It’s the start of things to come, I think we should now do a big shout out to other companies now, saying come on where’s your signs and symptoms,” she said. “Forget about the puppies, I’m bored of the puppies.
“We need actual information signposted on those loo rolls, so I’m hoping lots of other big brands will now go, ‘Yeah, hang on, this makes massive sense. This is what we need to be doing.'”
Although the plan to change the packaging was inspired by James, it was ultimately put into motion by M&S staff member Cara Hoofe who was diagnosed with stage 4 bowel cancer in 2016 at 32.
“Deborah is a huge inspiration to me and so many other young people diagnosed with bowel cancer,” Hoofe said. “I feel fortunate my journey since diagnosis has taken a different path but I want to give a voice to all those who can no longer use theirs to raise awareness.”
She then went on to explain more about the importance of this effort.
“Early detection is so important and my main message to people is don’t feel embarrassed, get things checked out and speak to your doctor,” she said. “I’ve worked at M&S for over ten years and am so happy they are putting my idea into action and so quickly – I’m hoping other companies will consider joining us.”
Happy with the change she’s inspired, James made sure to extend her gratitude to Hoofe.
“Congratulations Cara. I’m so pleased that you are talking about the hard work that you have put in, and what you have achieved,” James said. “I know we’ve both gone through bowel cancer and we’ve spoken so many times about getting signs and symptoms on loo roll but you finally did it and I am really really proud of you for doing that.”
Understanding Bowel Cancer
Bowel cancer is a general term for cancer that begins in the large bowel, but generally we use the term colorectal cancer – or colon cancer or rectal cancer depending on the location of the cancer – in the United States.
Bowel cancer, like all cancers, presents its own unique challenges for patients on the road to recovery. But Dr. Heather Yeo, a surgical oncologist and colorectal surgeon at New York Presbyterian Weill Cornell Medical Center, wants to remind people how far the treatment of this disease has come.
“One of the most exciting things about my job is that we’ve made a lot of progress on treatment options,” Dr. Yeo says in a previous interview with SurvivorNet. “However, patients are still — while they’re living longer, they are still living with colon cancer, and so I think it’s really important that we talk about how some of the things in your life affect you.”
Symptoms of Bowel Cancer
Colorectal (bowel) cancer might not immediately cause symptoms, but these are possible symptoms to look out for:
- A change in bowel habits, such as diarrhea, constipation or narrowing of the stool that lasts for more than a few days
- A feeling that you need to have a bowel movement that’s not relieved by having one
- Rectal bleeding with bright red blood
- Blood in the stool, which might make the stool look dark brown or black
- Cramping or abdominal (belly) pain
- Weakness and fatigue
- Unintended weight loss
It is important to note, however, that displaying some of these symptoms does not mean you have colorectal cancer. You could also have colon cancer and not display any of these symptoms. Regardless, it is important to bring up any symptoms to your doctor should they arise.
Screening for Bowel Cancer
Dr. Yeo also reminds people of the importance of colorectal screenings such as colonoscopies because most colorectal cancers can be prevented early with screening.
“In the United States, on a national level, colorectal cancer has been decreasing for the last 20 years,” Dr. Yeo says. “And much of that is thought to be directly due to screening for colon cancer.”
Even still, colorectal cancer cases are rising among younger people. And in the United States alone, rates have increased every year from 2011 to 2016 by 2 percent among people younger than 50. Because of this increase, the United States Preventive Services Task Force has recently updated its colorectal cancer screening recommendations to begin at age 45 instead of 50.
“We know that colon cancers can be prevented when polyps are found early,” Dr. Yeo said. “Lowering the screening age helps somewhat with this. But access to care is a real problem.”
And increasing access is crucial to making sure that we don’t see racial disparities within the world of colorectal cancer. Whites and Asians are significantly more likely to be up to date with their colonoscopies than African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans.
Research suggests that tailoring colon cancer screenings to each person’s individual risk may be beneficial. If you are not yet 45 but have concerns about your risk, talk to your doctor. Ask about your individual risk based on your lifestyle and family history and find out when screenings would be right for you.