“Check your poo – it may just save your life”

The above are the words of Dame Deborah James, who sadly died recently after living with bowel cancer for six years. Her journey from initial diagnosis, through treatment to her final days was well documented and according to the charity Bowel Cancer UK, “Deborah James saved countless lives”.

Yet despite this, a 2022 survey of eight thousand individuals by the private healthcare company BUPA noted that less than a quarter ever checked their stools for blood. Less than half were aware of red flag symptoms which should never be ignored. These are blood in your poo, a change in bowel habit, which may alternate between constipation and diarrhoea, and abdominal pain, sometimes worse when eating.

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Perhaps even more staggeringly, the Faecal Immunochemical Test (FIT), which screens for blood in your poo not visible to the naked eye, is taken up by less than half of those eligible. This is despite it being a simple to perform, painless procedure, done in your own home.

In the UK, there are around 43,000 new cases of bowel cancer, and sadly 16,500 deaths per year. Although these figures are large, survival has improved steadily from the 1970s. This is due to a combination of greater awareness, improved medical techniques and the screening programme.

If your bowel cancer is discovered at stage 4, the latest stage, survival is less than fifty percent at five years. Yet if picked up at stage 1, the earliest, up to 9 in 10 individuals will be alive five years later.

Although rectal bleeding, a change in bowel habit and abdominal pain are the classic red flag symptoms, sometimes bowel cancer may present less obviously.

You should be wary of persistent unexplained fatigue, or unintentional weight loss, especially if significant.

There are certain diseases that make you more prone to bowel cancer. These include other bowel conditions and inflammatory bowel disease. Non -bowel conditions, including diabetes, also increase the risk.

It is estimated that 50 percent of bowel cancers are preventable. This is not just by participating in the screening programme, but also by leading a healthier lifestyle.

By engaging in healthy practices, you can reduce your chances of not only bowel cancer, but several illnesses.

If caught early, bowel cancer can be very treatable, with a greater chance of survival. Yet we are nation that shies away from discussing bodily functions, though they happen to every one of us, every day.

In the same way that Jade Goody raised awareness of cervical cancer, Dame Deborah James broke down some of the stigmas and embarrassment.

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