“DON’T die because you’re shy.”
Bold, bright and straight to the point, Dame Deborah James never did mince her words.
She had a message to deliver, and she was not afraid to do it — regardless of who might feel embarrassed or uncomfortable.
From that moment — until the day she died, aged 40 — she was hell-bent on helping others avoid her devastating fate.
She dreamed of a world where her kids, Eloise, 12, and Hugo, 14, would grow up not fearing cancer — a world where there was a cure.
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Dame Debs knew that to get there we, as a society, have to break down taboos — and talk about things like bowel habits, poo and other “embarrassing” things.
In 2019, she wrote in her Sun column, Things Cancer Made Me Say: “Why do I share my story? Why do I share my cancer journey?”
The answer was to raise awareness, even though it could be “draining, exhausting and painful a lot of the time” for her.
“Then there are the days when it all makes sense,” wrote Deborah.
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“The days when I get a message to say someone has caught their cancer early — in time to live.
“The days when people tell me that by raising awareness I helped them spot the signs of bowel cancer in time.”
And once a teacher, always a teacher.
But it’s also the UK’s second deadliest cancer, claiming a tragic 16,000 lives a year.
Fewer than one in ten people survive bowel cancer if it’s picked up at stage 4, but detected quickly — at stage 1 — more than nine in ten patients will live five years or longer.
So knowing the signs and symptoms is absolutely vital to catching it early.
“By talking about cancer, in all its guises, we make it more normal,” Deborah said in April 2019.
“We can break down taboos and stop people feeling embarrassed.
“The difference between an early and late diagnosis is the difference between life and death in many cases.
“It’s the difference between seeing your kids grow up, or missing out.”
What to look for
HERE are the signs and symptoms you need to know:
Blood in your poo: In the heartbreaking post announcing Debs’s death, her family shared a poignant message from her: “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 save your life.”
You might recoil at the idea, but blood in your poo is a key warning sign of bowel cancer – and it is one Deborah noticed herself, months before her diagnosis.
It’s important to watch out for unexplained bleeding from your back passage too.
Chances are it’s something far less sinister than cancer, like haemorrhoids, but it’s not worth running the risk – get checked and remember to tell everyone you love to #checkyourpoo.
Obvious change in bowel habits: Another potentially embarrassing one to talk about, but if you notice a change in your toilet habits, take note.
It could be going more often than normal, suffering more constipation and anything else out of the ordinary for you.
If you spot any of that, get checked out and see your GP asap.
Weight loss you can’t explain: Before Debs’s diagnosis she recalled feeling tired and noticed she had lost weight – but she just put it down to the stress of a busy job and life.
You might be happy to see the pounds dropping off, but be warned – drop too fast and there could be a sinister reason for it.
The key here is “unexplained” weight loss – a disappearing beer belly for seemingly no reason.
If you haven’t been trying to trim down but have done so anyway, that’s when alarm bells should start to ring.
Losing more than 10lb without trying could be one of the first signs of bowel cancer – as well as cancer of the pancreas, oesophagus, stomach, or lungs.
Cancer Research UK states: “If you normally weigh 10st and lose half a stone in a month, or a stone in six months, that would need investigating.”
Extreme tiredness for no reason: Tumours in the bowel typically bleed, which can cause a shortage of red blood cells, a condition known as anaemia. It can cause tiredness and sometimes breathlessness.
Lump or pain in your tummy: Abdominal pain as well as a lump that your doctor can feel in your back passage or tummy, more commonly on the right side, can signal bowel cancer.
And take note of these signs too
OTHER signs of bowel cancer include:
- Gripping pains in the abdomen
- Feeling bloated
- Constipation and being unable to pass wind
- Being sick
- Feeling like you need to strain – like doing a number two – but after you’ve been to the loo
So what should you do if you notice any of these?
In her column, Dame Debs advised: “If you spot any of these signs or changes, first things first . . . don’t panic. In many cases there will be another, much less scary explanation.
“But don’t delay either. If you notice a change or are worried about something, book in to see your GP – it’s much better to be safe than sorry.
“And having the courage to make that call really could save your life.”