Record numbers of people have come forward for bowel cancer checks thanks to lifesaving awareness raising by Dame Deborah James, the NHS said today.

Between the months of May and July, referrals for suspected lower gastro-intestinal cancers reached record levels, with over 170,500 people referred for checks during that period – up over 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 this week show Deborah’s campaigning, along with 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.

Dame Deborah James 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 in June.

Today NHS cancer leaders once again pay tribute to her and her incredible work, after she captured the hearts of the nation with her story and got more people talking about the disease.

The last three months also saw almost 200,000 more estimated visitors to the NHS website for the symptoms of bowel – England’s fourth most common cancer, with around 37,000 new cases diagnosed each year – cancer compared to the same period last year.

The NHS Long Term Plan sets out an ambition that three-quarters of cancers will be diagnosed at stages one or two by 2028 – boosting the number of people who survive for five years or more by 55,000 people.

Symptoms of bowel cancer can include blood in your poo, a change in bowel habits or tummy pain, and unexpected weight loss or fatigue – with statistics showing around nine in 10 people with bowel cancer are aged 60 or over.

National Cancer Director, Dame Cally Palmer said: “Thanks to the brave and relentless campaigning of Dame Deborah James, bowel cancer has come to the forefront of a national conversation on catching cancer as early as possible, and the fact that we have seen record numbers of people coming forward for bowel cancer checks shows people are taking the illness seriously and speaking to their GPs about it.

“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”.

National Clinical Director for Cancer; Professor Peter Johnson said: “The risk factors of bowel cancer are well researched with age, diet, family history as well as smoking and drinking habits all found to influence the likelihood of developing the illness, but we also know that it can also occur outside of these risks and I continue to urge anyone worried about symptoms to come forward and speak to their GP.

“Early diagnosis dramatically improves patient outcomes so help us, help you and seek advice if you are concerned”.

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. 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”.

Erica thanked the NHS staff and surgeons who helped her, adding she was one of the “lucky ones” to get the all clear and to “tell the tale” today.

Genevieve Edwards, Chief Executive at Bowel Cancer UK, says: “People visiting has never been higher, with tens of thousands more people seeking information about the symptoms of the disease since Dame Deborah James’ tragic death. There was also a spike in people affected by bowel cancer posting on our forum, contacting our Ask the Nurse service and we know that people have visited their GP as a result of hearing her story.

“Almost 43,000 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer each year in the UK and, since her own diagnosis with the disease and right up until her death, Dame Deborah campaigned tirelessly to raise vital awareness of bowel cancer. Being aware of the symptoms and visiting your GP if you are concerned can help increase chances of an early diagnosis when the disease is easier to treat”.

Michelle Mitchell, Chief Executive of Cancer Research UK, said: “Dame Deborah James shared her story with the world to raise awareness of the importance of early diagnosis, break down barriers and challenge taboos around cancer.

“Deborah’s honesty and humour has changed the conversation around cancer and she’s undoubtedly had a huge impact on raising awareness. We saw an increase of 120% to our bowel cancer information pages the day after she passed away, compared to the day before. We hope that the impact of this increased awareness of the disease will be felt for years to come.

“It’s important that people contact their GP if they notice any changes to their body which aren’t normal for them. While most changes won’t be cancer, if it is, an early diagnosis can make all the difference”.

Thanks to NHS campaigns and early diagnosis initiatives, suspected cancer referrals have remained at record levels over the last 16 months, reaching 121% of pre-pandemic levels in the month of May 2022.

To meet increasing demand for cancer checks, NHS services across the country are expanding their diagnostic capabilities through one-stop shops for tests, mobile clinics and cancer symptom hotlines, ensuring people are diagnosed and treated as early as possible to give them a much better chance of beating the disease.

The record referrals also coincide with the launch of a new phase of the NHS’s ‘Help Us Help You’ campaign which focused on helping people overcome barriers like fear and anxiety that often delay or prevent them from coming forward – with both running across TV, radio, print, social media and out-of-home advertising.


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