Bowel cancer checks at record high ‘thanks to Dame Deborah James’

Reporter Charlie Frost learns of Dame Deborah's far-reaching impact

More people are having bowel cancer checks than ever before after the death of campaigner Dame Deborah James, health bosses have said.

Dame Deborah, also known by her social media handle Bowel Babe, had been raising awareness about the disease until her death on June 28 at the age of 40.

Between the months of May and July, 170,500 people referred for checks for suspected lower gastro-intestinal cancers, according to the NHS.

It is up over 30,000 compared to the same period in 2021, and nearly 80,000 higher than the same period two years ago.

Figures also showed referrals for bowel cancer hit an all-time high in the second week of July, shortly after Dame Deborah’s death, up 60% on pre-pandemic levels.

The last three months also saw almost 200,000 more visitors to the NHS website to check symptoms of the disease.

Dame Deborah James with husband Sebastien Bowen Credit: Harkness Rose Company/PA

National cancer director Dame Cally Palmer said: “Thanks to the brave and relentless campaigning of Dame Deborah James, bowel cancer has come to the forefront of a national conversation on catching cancer as early as possible, and the fact that we have seen record numbers of people coming forward for bowel cancer checks shows people are taking the illness seriously and speaking to their GPs about it.

“It is so important that we continue the work of Dame Deborah to raise awareness of bowel cancer and save more lives, so to anyone who has noticed symptoms, please do come forward.”

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.

Genevieve Edwards, chief executive at Bowel Cancer UK, says: “People visiting has never been higher, with tens of thousands more people seeking information about the symptoms of the disease since Dame Deborah James’ tragic death.

“There was also a spike in people affected by bowel cancer posting on our forum, contacting our Ask the Nurse service and we know that people have visited their GP as a result of hearing her story.”

Tanya Laird, who was diagnosed with terminal bowel cancer in 2018, also hailed Dame Deborah's campaigning.

"It’s brilliant that people are now taking that moment, that opportunity to think, 'hey, maybe I should get the check, maybe I should get the colonoscopy'," she said.

In early May, Dame Deborah revealed she had stopped active treatment and was receiving end-of-life care at her parents’ home in Woking, Surrey, with her husband and their two children on hand.

The podcaster was diagnosed in 2016 and kept her one million Instagram followers up to date with her treatments.

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know

Her candid posts about her progress and diagnosis, including videos of her dancing her way through treatment, won praise from the public and media alike.

Alongside Lauren Mahon and Rachael Bland, she launched the You, Me And The Big C podcast in 2018.

She was made a dame, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson saying: “If ever an honour was richly deserved, this is it.”

Dame Deborah later said she felt “honoured and shocked” to be considered for the honour.

Her husband Sebastien Bowen has spoken about the difficulties of the last few months he spent with the former deputy headteacher, whom he married in France in 2008.

Mr Bowen told the Times: “She was making the most of every last moment. But that was her. That is how I will always remember Deborah – the ability in the worst of times to embrace life.

“More than anyone I know she loved life, even more so when it became so short and each minute counted.”

He went on: “She was so weak she couldn’t do much on her own, which she found frustrating as she was naturally fiercely independent.

“She was paralysed at the end from her waist down and had to deal with the psychological battle of the reality of her new handicap. She couldn’t even go to the kitchen to get food or clean or dress herself.

“I’m not going to pretend it was easy. It was a new experience for all of us and we had to find our feet, but it also brought us closer to her and to each other.”