The C-word is something we hear about a lot. There are over 200 different types of cancer – with one in two people expected to contract the disease in their lifetime. These frightening statistics make the subject a prevalent health issue that cannot be addressed widely enough.
Several fundraising events occur each year, most notably, the Race for Life, which was created by Cancer Research UK and has raised almost £900 million in the last quarter of a century. However, despite this increased awareness, some cancers are still considered taboo.
Bowel cancer is one of the most common cancers in the UK, with an estimated 43,000 people diagnosed with the disease every year. Given that it's the second-biggest cancer killer, this begs the question – why are we reluctant to talk about our poo?
Some of the initial signs of the life-threatening condition include a persistent change in bowel habits and noticeable blood in the stool. These unpleasant symptoms, also seen in other bowel-related diseases, often cause people to shy away from the subject. Take Inflammatory Bowel Disease, for example - over 620,000 patients are estimated to suffer from the condition in the UK. Yet, most people are unaware of it and what complications the incurable illness can cause.
More needs to be done to break the taboo and promote candid conversations amongst the public and those who suffer from said diseases. Leading the way in debunking the stigma is best-selling author, podcaster, and columnist – Dame Deborah James.
In 2016, James was diagnosed with incurable stage four bowel cancer at the tender age of 35. Having put her symptoms down to 'stress' – James soon realised that something was wrong when she continued to lose weight and pass blood. Upon being diagnosed, James described the experience as a moment of "disbelief" – something you think will always happen to someone else – not you. Facing her harsh reality head-on, James became a patron of the Bowel Cancer UK charity in 2021 and has dedicated what's left of her life to raising awareness and supporting others.
Her extraordinary efforts have resulted in her blog, Bowelbabe, a regular column on The Sun – detailing her battle with the disease, and a best-selling book, titled "F*** you cancer." Since 2018, James has also been presenting the BBC podcast, You, Me and the Big C: Putting the Can in Cancer, in which she recently recorded her final episode. Since her diagnosis, James has also discussed the disease openly on social media and various public platforms. She has teamed up with Lorraine Kelly to promote ITV's No Butts campaign for the second year. Aimed at bringing awareness to bowel cancer and how to spot the relevant signs and symptoms – the campaign has been an integral part of patients achieving an early diagnosis of the condition.
In June 2021, after undergoing several treatments, James revealed that her "body doesn't want to play ball anymore." In an emotional farewell, the journalist took to Instagram to bid goodbye to her followers, beginning the caption with "the message I never wanted to write." In the heart-wrenching post, James introduced The BowelBabe Fund – a fundraiser for Cancer Research UK. All proceeds raised from the fund will go towards clinical trials and further research into the condition.
Ever since the fund went live, it has averaged a staggering £1 million in daily donations. The astounding amount continues to surge as James' pivotal story inspires the nation's hearts. Having recently surpassed the £4 million mark – the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have also paid tribute to James, with the Queen honouring her with a Damehood. Currently, James is undergoing end-of-life hospice care as she plans her final moments with her loved ones.
Dame Deborah James has embodied resilience, strength, and optimism in the face of such adversity. It is a true testament to her character that during this critical time, all James hopes for is that the BowelBabe Fund will continue to "spread the word" and banish all "poo taboos."
We can only hope that following James' outstanding efforts to raise awareness, future lives will be saved, and the bowel cancer stigma will continue to diminish.
It's time to break the taboo and check our poo.
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