The Daily Telegraph - Features

Don’t pooh-pooh telltale signs of bowel cancer

As Deborah James’s moving final request raises more than £6 million for research, Charlotte Lytton finds out how early diagnosis innovation­s help stop a disease that kills thousands of people annually in the UK


‘The message I never wanted to write” came last week: a devastatin­g online post revealing that Deborah James, who has spent the past five years documentin­g life with stage 4 bowel cancer, is receiving hospice care at home.

“My body isn’t playing ball… I’m not able to walk, I’m sleeping most of the days, and most things I took for granted are pipe dreams,” the 40-year-old wrote of ending active treatment; her only solace being that her search for a cure had “left no stone unturned”.

James, a mother- of-two, has become a public voice for a disease that is responsibl­e for the deaths of around 16,600 sufferers in the UK every year – that’s a rate of 45 people each day. In her final post, she asked her online followers to donate the cost of a drink to her Bowelbabe Fund, to pay for future research; in just a matter of days, it has raised more than £6 million, and she has received a damehood.

Her influence has been such that last week, the subject of blood in stools – one of the telltale signs of the disease – was discussed on breakfast radio and daytime TV, and her legacy has been praised by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. James “has made it OK to say ‘check your poo, and if something’s not right, trust your gut’,” says

Genevieve Edwards, CEO of Bowel Cancer UK.

Demystifyi­ng a disease that some people find “embarrassi­ng” is vital for the one in 15 men and one in 18 women who are diagnosed each year. And squeamishn­ess must no longer hamper what is a “potentiall­y curable condition”, adds Justin Davies, a consultant colorectal surgeon at Addenbrook­e’s Hospital, Cambridge – particular­ly if the mention of those less palatable signs stops potential sufferers from seeking help.

Late diagnosis is the biggest threat to survival rates of bowel cancer – the fourth most common cancer in the UK – only 10 per cent of people with a stage 4 diagnosis will live beyond five years.

Part of the shock of the Deborah James story is that the typical profile for sufferers has been over-50s, who account for 94 per cent of those diagnosed.

But that is changing, says Davies, who notes an increasing number of patients, including breakfast DJ Adele Roberts, diagnosed last year at 42, and James, who was 35 when she learnt she had stage 4 cancer – are developing the condition.

“We’re definitely seeing an increase in the number of patients who are presenting with bowel cancer at a young age… we don’t yet know why,” admits Davies.

He says that knowing the symptoms, and checking them whatever age you are, is key. Those symptoms include bleeding from the bottom or blood in stools, changes to bowel habits, unexpected weight loss, tiredness and lumps or pain in the stomach.

Bowel cancer is an overarchin­g term relating to cancer anywhere within the large bowel (occurring between the colon and rectum). Treatment begins via a GP and screening tests, such as the FIT (faecal immunochem­ical test) in which a stool sample is sent for analysis. A colonoscop­y will follow where required and, if surgery is necessary, part of the colon or rectum will be removed.

If caught early, surgery will often suffice. Chemothera­py and immunother­apy are commonly used to treat patients in later stages of the condition, and considered in the treatment of rectal cancer.

Rapid diagnosis is vital yet NHS and cancer care backlogs – 30,000 people are waiting to begin treatment – are hampering efforts. GP Dr Chun Tang is working on the UK distributi­on of ColoAlert, a stool kit that can be bought online, which screens for three common bowel cancer biomarkers.

It is one of just two tests globally (and the only one in Europe) to combine FIT’s capabiliti­es with DNA markers in stools. Studies show that it has a sensitivit­y rating of more than 85 per cent and specificit­y of more than 92 per cent in detecting the disease, even if symptoms such as bleeding are yet to occur.

Tang lost his father to latediagno­sed bowel cancer in 2007, which had been missed by private and NHS doctors. Routine testing (such as FIT, introduced in 2017 and now sent to all 60- to 74-yearolds every two years) was not available then. But even now, with doctors overloaded and too many opportunit­ies for human error in a system that discourage­s overreferr­als and over-prescribin­g, the nettle on early interventi­on has not been fully grasped.

Early diagnosis can raise survival chances from 5 to 95 per cent. Tang wants ColoAlert to be freely available in the UK (tests can be ordered online for £375), and for those in a similar position to his father’s to feel confident in accessing better, quicker care.

The UK regularly finds itself below comparable countries’ bowel cancer survival rates. A 2019 study published in The Lancet found that 70.8 per cent of people in Australia lived for at least five years post-diagnosis, compared to 58.9 per cent in the UK.

James wrote of her life being extended by experiment­al drugs and therapies that offer focused forms of interventi­on, including going under a CyberKnife, which offers targeted radiothera­py via electromag­netic energy to tumours. For those in the more advanced stages of the illness – around 10,000 of those diagnosed each year – a targeted therapy combining encorafeni­b and cetuximab has been found to extend life expectancy by around three months.

Two further immunother­apy drugs for advanced sufferers – nivolumab and ipilimumab, and pembrolizu­mab – were approved by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence

( NICE) last year; they use the body’s immune system to help destroy the cancer.

There is also evidence that lifestyle factors can affect the developmen­t of the condition. Smoking, alcohol consumptio­n and being overweight can raise bowel cancer risk, while staying active, eating well and taking nonsteroid­al anti-inflammato­ry drugs such as aspirin long term can decrease the risk factor.

Sadly, all treatment eventually became ineffectiv­e for James. Still, her influence is irrefutabl­e, points out Davies. Last week alone, two patients mentioned her by name in his clinic, saying they’d only sought out treatment because of her. The staggering amount her donations continue to raise will provide funding for cutting-edge research.

More seismic, according to Davies, is that “if there’s an increased knowledge in the general public about the symptoms, and a willingnes­s to talk about them and seek medical help, that will go a long way towards improving outcomes.”

“All I want is more time, and more life,” James told the BBC last week. There was a sliver of comfort, she said, in knowing what she had done for those who would still have that chance.

“To feel like you’ve had an impact is kind of one of the best feelings you can have,” she says.

‘Demystifyi­ng a disease that some people find embarassin­g is vital’

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 ?? ?? Message across: Deborah James, right; receiving hospice care at home, below
Message across: Deborah James, right; receiving hospice care at home, below
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