Dame Julie Walters has spoken about her diagnosis with bowel cancer for the first time.
The actor now has the all-clear; she told the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire show her condition was discovered 18 months ago after doctors found two primary tumours in her large intestine.
Walters – who has starred in everything from Billy Elliot to Mamma Mia! – first went to the doctor because of indigestion and “slight discomfort”, with her symptoms later evolving into stomach pain, heartburn and vomiting.
When she was diagnosed with stage three bowel cancer, she says she had surgery and 30cm taken was taken out of her colon.
When thinking back to her diagnoses, Walters describes her feelings as: “Shock. First of all, shock. And I thought, ‘Right’. Then you hold on to the positive, which was that he said, ‘We can fix this’.”
Bowel cancer late diagnosis
The charity Bowel Cancer UK says it’s the UK’s fourth most common cancer killer – even though around nine in 10 people would survive bowel cancer if it was detected at the earliest stage.
Genevieve Edwards, chief executive of the charity, says: “Being aware of the symptoms and visiting your GP if things don’t feel right can help increase chances of an early diagnosis.”
While there are a lot of reasons behind the lack of early detection, it may be attributed to the stigma around bowel cancer because it involves an ’embarrassing’ part of the body.
When asked about people resistant to go to the doctors with symptoms in that area, Walters says: “Your bowel is part of your digestive system, it’s just what digests your food – and I think you just have to remember that. It’s just, you’ve got to go get things checked.”
She then adds with a giggle: “Doctors are used to bottoms – they’ve got one themselves.”
Bowel cancer symptoms
One of the main things to look out for are persistent changes in your bowel habits.
“You may have looser stools; this can happen for a number of reasons, but if there’s no explanation for this and it’s lasting a long time then it is something you should get checked out,” advises Dr Diana Gall of Doctor4U. “Bleeding from your bottom or blood in your stools is a symptom that you should also take notice of.”
Other symptoms are more general and include “abdominal pain, bloating, and discomfort, unexplained weight loss, and extreme tiredness which may be unusual for you, or there may be no apparent reason why you’re feeling so much fatigue”, says Gall.
It’s also worthwhile feeling for lumps in the stomach area – while this doesn’t necessarily mean you have bowel cancer, they’re still something which should be checked out by a doctor.
Symptoms are often subtle and can be easily confused with other bowel conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). “However, if your symptoms are persistent and are lasting more than four weeks, it’s time to see your GP as this may be a sign of bowel cancer,” advises Gall.
According to Gall, “symptoms usually develop in later stages of cancer, but this doesn’t mean it can’t be treated”.
Bowel cancer screening tests
There are two main ways to screen for bowel cancer: one is using an at-home kit, which collects a small stool sample and sends it to a laboratory to be checked out.
In the UK people aged between 60 and 74 and registered with a GP are sent a kit every two years. The NHS says it’s used to check for tiny amounts of blood in your poo and does not diagnose bowel cancer but it’s a simple way to find out if you need further tests.
Another method is a bowel scope screening, which Gall says “uses a camera instrument to look inside the bowel”.
It’s currently being rolled out to people in England age 55 and above. A colonoscopy can also detect bowel cancer but isn’t a regular procedure.
Always see your GP if you’re worried about any symptoms.