Huge rise in searches for bowel cancer symptoms after Dame Deborah James’ death

Dame Deborah James died of bowel cancer in June. Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

The number of people checking bowel cancer symptoms on the NHS website increased tenfold after the death of Dame Deborah James, the health service said.

Latest figures from the NHS show that 23,274 visits were made to NHS webpages for bowel cancer on Wednesday, up from 2,000 the day before.

Dame Deborah’s family confirmed on Tuesday that the campaigner and podcaster had died aged 40 after being diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2016.

Dame Deborah died on Tuesday after spending her final weeks receiving end-of-life care at home with her husband, Sebastien, and their two children.

In a statement released by her family, some final words from her were: “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.”

The NHS has also urged people to not to be “prudish about poo”, warning that people are often reluctant to talk about symptoms due to embarrassment.

Dame Deborah James' courage inspired and reassured so many and her fundraising will continue to save lives long after her death, as Ian Woods reports

What are the symptoms of bowel cancer?

According to the NHS, the three main symptoms of bowel cancer are:

  • persistent blood in your poo – that happens for no obvious reason or is associated with a change in bowel habit

  • a persistent change in your bowel habit – which is usually having to poo more and your poo may also become more runny

  • persistent lower, bloating or discomfort – that's always caused by eating and may be associated with loss of appetite and weight

The NHS says most people with these symptoms do not have bowel cancer. Other health problems can cause similar symptoms such as a change in diet or haemorrhoids.

However, the NHS recommends seeing your GP if you have had any of these symptoms for three weeks or more.

NHS chief executive Amanda Pritchard said: “Dame Deborah James is an inspiration to us all – her death this week has touched the nation.

“People often don’t feel comfortable speaking about their cancer diagnosis and treatment but Deborah bravely speaking out about her personal journey has prompted thousands more people to check the symptoms. There is no doubt about it – this has been life-saving.

Bowel cancer is the second biggest cancer killer in the UK - but many are often too embarrassed to talk about their symptoms, as Health Editor Emily Morgan explains

“We must now continue Deborah’s fantastic work in her honour.

“Talking about cancer saves lives. So, our message to you is – don’t be prudish about poo, get checked out if you have worrying signs or symptoms.”

Cancer Research UK chief executive Michelle Mitchell said: “Dame Deborah James shared her story with the world to raise awareness of the importance of early diagnosis, break down barriers and challenge taboos around cancer.

“Deborah’s honesty and humour has changed the conversation around cancer and she’s undoubtedly had a huge impact on raising awareness. We saw an increase of 120% to our bowel cancer information pages the day after she passed away, compared to the day before. We hope that the impact of this increased awareness of the disease will be felt for years to come.

“It’s important that people contact their GP if they notice any changes to their body which aren’t normal for them. While most changes won’t be cancer, if it is, an early diagnosis can make all the difference.”

Health Secretary Sajid Javid said: “Dame Deborah James has left an incredible legacy and changed the national conversation around cancer.

"These figures reflect the powerful and lifesaving impact she has had – inspiring countless people across the country to get informed, get checked and speak up.

“Having lost my father to bowel cancer, I know how devastating this disease can be, and we must continue to break down barriers around what she called the ‘C word’ – encouraging people to have open and honest discussions.

“Our upcoming 10-Year cancer plan will build on this with a focus on early diagnosis to help save more lives.”

Bowel cancer is England’s fourth most common cancer, with around 37,000 new cases in England each year.