How you can grant Dame Deborah’s last wish: Mail’s Gut Health Guru, who knew the ‘Bowelbabe’, urges readers to honour her legacy by safeguarding their health
- Dame Deborah James passed away following five-year battle with bowel cancer
- 40-year-old’s Bowelbabe fund passed £7m a day after death was announced
- Mother-of-two was an inspiration to millions and raised awareness of disease
As last requests go, it was certainly an unusual one. In a moving final message shared on Instagram by her family, Dame Deborah James urged us all to: ‘Find a life worth enjoying; take risks; love deeply; have no regrets; and always, always have rebellious hope. And finally, check your poo — it could just save your life.
It was typical Debs. Because while her loss is nothing short of devastating, she also leaves behind an incredible legacy.
Since she and I first met three years ago, working on a campaign about the importance of fibre for gut health — just one of the many things she did to raise the profile of bowel cancer since her diagnosis in 2016 — I’ve been in awe of her.
Pictured: Davina McCall (left) , Dame Deborah James (middle) and Megan Rossi (right)
Dame Deborah James urged her fans to ‘find a life worth enjoying, take risks, have no regrets and always check your poo’ in a final message to her army of supporters
The presenter, 40, was diagnosed with stage four bowel cancer in December 2016 and received palliative care at her parents’ home in Woking, Surrey after being told she may not live beyond five years – a milestone that passed in the autumn of 2021
Mother-of-four Tracey O’Keefe, from Glasgow, heard Deborah talking about her symptoms on TV in 2018.
‘I looked at her and thought she didn’t tick all the boxes of someone who would have cancer. And that really hit home because I thought: “I have all those symptoms, too.” ’
Tracey had already been to her GP, but had been told she most likely had internal piles. ‘I was embarrassed,’ she admits. ‘I went in saying: “Sorry, it’s me again, but I’ve still got this. I’ve still got a wee bit of blood, I’m still pooing really strangely.” It was a change in bowel habits . . . all the classic symptoms. I had the weight loss as well.’
After hearing Deborah speak, Tracey insisted on a referral to see a specialist. Delays meant she had to pay to see a doctor privately, and she was diagnosed with a 4 cm tumour.
In a Facebook post yesterday, she wrote: ‘My diagnosis was genuinely down to watching this amazing woman talking about her symptoms . . . I’m forever grateful to the fabulous Deborah.’
Not many people could achieve what Debs did, especially when struggling with such serious illness, but I am so thankful that she did.
Through her tireless work, she brought bowel cancer to the fore. She de-stigmatised a disease that kills thousands in the UK every year, often because of late diagnosis — a result of embarrassment when it comes to talking about our toilet issues. She also raised huge sums of money that will go towards research into preventing, diagnosing and curing the disease.
Her impact can be seen directly in the fact that in May, straight after Debs launched her Bowelbabe fund for Cancer Research UK as she announced that she was moving to palliative care at home, online searches for ‘bowel cancer’ rose by 280 per cent.
Three times more people than usual visited Cancer Research UK’s web pages on bowel cancer — and, as people rushed to get more information, they also rushed to donate: her fund has raised more than £7 million, and still rising.
Up until the end, and long past it, this inspirational woman will be making a difference. Just last week it was announced that Andrex, Tesco and many others are to list bowel cancer symptoms on their packs of loo roll, a campaign driven by Debs.
The fact is that bowel cancer does not discriminate in who it attacks — young, old, male, female, healthy, unhealthy.
Also called colorectal cancer, it’s the fourth most common cancer in the UK, with 43,000 people diagnosed a year.
In most cases, if diagnosed early, it’s curable. The heart-breaking thing is that it’s often diagnosed too late, which is why of all cancers, it is the second biggest killer, claiming more than 16,500 people in the UK a year.
So please, heed Debs’s call to follow your gut instinct and never ignore symptoms, no matter how squeamish you feel. I promise your doctor has seen and heard worse.
Debs realised something wasn’t right when she started pooing eight times a day, having always been a ‘once a day’ kind of girl.
On May 9, the mother-of-two shared a heartbreaking ‘goodbye’ message to her 470,000 Instagram followers, revealing she was being moved into hospice-at-home care, while ‘surrounded by family’
Deborah (pictured with her children), parent to Hugo, 14, and Eloise, 12, with her husband Sebastien, was constantly labelled ‘inspirational’ by fans after candidly sharing her struggles on social media, as well as on Radio 5 Live’s You, Me and the Big C, of which she was one of three presenters
Deborah – who has two children Hugo, 14, and Eloise, 12, with her husband Sebastien – was constantly labelled ‘inspirational’ by fans after candidly sharing her struggles on social media
If it wasn’t for her bravery and honesty, I think I would be dead
Thanks to Deborah, Teresa Whitfield was diagnosed with cancer in March 2019, aged 49.
‘I remember having an upset stomach and blood in my poo on holiday in July 2018 and thinking: “My body’s trying to tell me something.” I put it down to dodgy food,’ says marketing consultant Teresa, now 52, who lives in South London with her husband and teenage daughter. ‘But my poo didn’t look normal and I developed a pain on the left side of my abdomen.
‘That October, I saw [Deborah] raising awareness on the Lorraine show and the penny dropped. [She] spoke about bowel cancer so openly. A feeling of impending doom washed over me.’
Teresa rang her GP, who told her not to worry as she was young, fit and healthy. But following further symptoms in February 2019, she sought advice again. When she was again dismissed, she sought private treatment — and was diagnosed with bowel cancer.
She had surgery to remove the tumour and 18 lymph nodes, plus six months of chemo. Now, she is well. In an open letter to Deborah in OK! magazine she wrote: ‘I’m one of the lucky ones. Being diagnosed early saved my life. Dame Deborah, without you I promise I’d be dead.’
Our extensive symptoms guide (above right) covers the other signs you should look for, and a persistent change in your bowel movements is among them.
Apart from the importance of addressing symptoms immediately, one thing that really strikes me is more than half of bowel cancers are said to be preventable. This does not account for all cases — especially in young people, where the cause is often genetic or unexplained — but the older you are (nine in ten cases are in the over-50s), the more likely diet and lifestyle is implicated.
So take protective measures, such as cutting down on alcohol and processed meat and eating more fibre and plants. Being more active and keeping your weight in check is sensible, too.
Debs’s death is a tragedy. And it would add to that tragedy if, now she’s gone, we stop talking about how to prevent bowel cancer. In the words of Dame Deborah: ‘Check your poo.’
Dr Rossi is a dietitian and gut health researcher at King’s College London.
Vital symptoms to watch out for that could save your life
Dame Deborah’s incredible work helped to raise awareness of the symptoms of bowel cancer. Here, we share a cut-out-and-keep guide to help you understand the signs to watch out for and the screening services available to you.
THE SIGNS TO LOOK OUT FOR
The following could indicate bowel cancer, so always get any changes checked out — especially if they are persistent and unexplained.
- Bleeding from your bottom and/or blood in your stools;
- Any changes to usual bowel habits, including looser or harder stools, needing to have a bowel movement more often than usual, constipation or the feeling you’re not fully emptying your bowels;
- Extreme tiredness for no obvious reason;
- Abdominal pain, typically in the lower or central stomach;
- Tenesmus — the feeling that you need to pass stools, even though your bowels are already empty;
- Unexplained weight loss.
It can help to keep track of your symptoms, so Bowel Cancer UK have developed a symptoms diary, endorsed by the Royal College of GPs, available at bowelcanceruk.org.uk/symptoms-diary
THE EXPERT SAYS
‘Look at the toilet paper or look in the bowl for signs of blood,’ says Professor Gordon Carlson, a leading consultant gastric surgeon who is based at Salford Royal NHS Foundation Trust. ‘If there is blood when you wipe yourself, don’t assume it’s haemorrhoids. You must get it checked out.
‘The key thing is if your bowel habit becomes different from your normal habit. So if stools are normally loose and suddenly you’re constipated, or vice versa, then see your doctor. The important issue is noticing a change that is not usual for you.’
TAKE UP AN INVITATION FOR BOWEL SCREENING
The NHS bowel cancer screening programme is available to everyone aged 60 to 74, and is being made available to everyone aged 50 to 59 over the next four years.
Those who are eligible are sent a bowel cancer testing kit every two years — so ensure your correct address is registered with your GP. The faecal immunochemical test (FIT) is non-invasive and you perform it in your own home. It aims to identify blood not visible to the naked eye, rather than diagnosing cancer itself.
To complete the test, collect a small sample of poo on the provided plastic stick, put it into the sample bottle and post it back to a lab for testing.
If the test finds anything unusual, you’ll be referred for further tests. Too young for the screening programme but have concerns? See your GP.
HOME TEST KITS
DIY testing kits for bowel cancer are now available over the counter. But Dr Lisa Wilde of Bowel Cancer UK says: ‘We cannot recommend private screening kits because they can vary in quality and so the results can be misleading. If you are worried you have symptoms of bowel cancer, or if things just don’t feel right, contact your doctor.’
COULD YOU BE AT RISK?
Although experts remain unsure what causes most bowel cancers, there are some factors that could increase your risk of getting the disease. If you have any of the following risk factors, then you should be especially vigilant.
Needless to say, you should visit your GP with any worries regardless of your age or medical history.
- A family history of bowel cancer in a first-degree relative — a parent or sibling — under the age of 50 can increase your lifetime risk;
- Age: more than nine out of ten cases of bowel cancer develop in adults over the age of 50, while 70 per cent of patients are over 70;
- A history of developing non-cancerous growths (polyps) in your bowel;
- Long-standing inflammatory bowel disease such as Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis;
- Type 2 diabetes;
- Weight: Around 11 per cent of bowel cancers in the UK are linked to being overweight or obese;
- Poor diet, such as too much red meat (limit to 500g or less — cooked weight — a week, and avoid processed meat);
- Lack of fibre — eat at least 30g per day. Good sources include fruit, vegetables, wholegrains and pulses including lentils and chickpeas.
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