Dame Deborah James left many legacies to be proud of, including the astounding Bowelbabe Fund which has raised over £7m for charity to date.
But perhaps her most important legacy of all is the thousands of lives she’ll have saved by sharing her story and encouraging others to get checked for bowel cancer.
New statistics reveal record numbers of people came forward for bowel cancer checks thanks to James’s tireless campaigning.
Between the months of May and July this year, referrals for suspected lower gastro-intestinal cancers reached record levels, with over 170,500 people referred for checks during that period, according to the NHS.
This was up by more than 30,000 compared to the same period last year, and nearly 80,000 higher than the same period two years ago.
The latest referral figures published by NHS Digital show James’s campaigning – as well as the latest NHS ‘Help Us, Help You’ campaign – had an immediate impact, as referrals for bowel cancer hit an all-time high in the second week of July, up 60% on pre-pandemic levels.
James, who was also known as Bowelbabe on social media, campaigned tirelessly for more public awareness of bowel cancer, and the need to be vigilant about symptoms like blood in your poo, before she sadly passed away from the disease on 28 June.
The last three months saw almost 200,000 more estimated visitors to the NHS website for the symptoms of bowel cancer, which is England’s fourth most common cancer.
National Cancer Director, Dame Cally Palmer, said: “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.”
Erica Squire, 59, was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2017 following pain in her abdomen. She was referred for a colonoscopy where clinicians discovered bowel cancer, which had spread to her liver.
Following a successful chemotherapy treatment, her tumours shrunk enough to be operated on and in January 2018, she had part of her bowel removed with tumours also removed from her liver. Since then, she has been given the all clear.
“There are definitely misconceptions about the disease, and I was so proud to see the hard campaigning of Dame Deborah James and the work she has done to dispel myths surrounding it,” said Squire.
“She was very keen to reduce the stigma surrounding bowel cancer, in my experience, people simply feel too embarrassed to talk about their symptoms and they shouldn’t.”
It isn’t just the NHS which has noticed the impact of James’s campaigning. The number of people visiting Bowel Cancer UK’s website has never been higher, according to the charity’s chief executive Genevieve Edwards.
Meanwhile Cancer Research UK saw an 120% increase in visits to its bowel cancer information pages the day after James passed away.
Michelle Mitchell, the charity’s chief executive, said her “honesty and humour” changed the conversation around cancer.
“We hope that the impact of this increased awareness of the disease will be felt for years to come,” she added.
Symptoms of bowel cancer
:: a persistent change in bowel habit – pooing more often, with looser, runnier poos and sometimes tummy pain,
:: blood in the poo without other symptoms of piles (haemorrhoids),
:: abdominal pain, discomfort or bloating always brought on by eating – sometimes resulting in a reduction in the amount of food eaten and weight loss.