Dame Deborah James: why bowel cancer referrals and checks are up since her death - what has NHS England said?

Deborah James, who died in June at the age of 40, inspired millions with her campaign to raise awareness for bowel cancer.

A record number of people in England are having bowel cancer checks thanks to ‘life-saving awareness raising’ by Dame Deborah James, the NHS has said. 

Dame Deborah, who was diagnosed with stage four bowel cancer in December 2016, shared her journey with the disease on her InstagramBowelBabe’ and podcast ‘You, Me and the Big C’, which she launched in 2018 alongside Steve Bland and Lauren Mahon.

She campaigned for awareness for bowel cancer until she died on 28 June at the age of 40, raising over £6 million for Cancer Research UK in the final weeks of her life.

Her fundraiser hit £7 million a day after her death.

Bowel cancer checks are at a record high after Dame Deborah James’ death

According to the NHS, referral figures for suspected lower gastro-intestinal cancers reached record levels between the months of May and July - with more than 170,500 people referred for health checks.

This represents an increase of over 30,000 compared to the same period last year, and an increase of 80,000 in comparison with the same period two years ago.

Referrals for bowel cancer specifically also hit an all-time high in July, with the latest figures showing an increase of 60% when compared to pre-pandemic levels.

NHS cancer leaders have attributed much of this to Dame Deborah, who, by capturing the nation’s hearts, encouraged people to talk about the disease and raised for awareness for symptoms, such as blood in your poo.

A total of 200,000 more people checked bowel cancer symptoms on the NHS website in the past three months, the research also revealed.

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.

“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.”

Dame Deborah shared her cancer journey on Instagram

Erica Squire, a survivor of bowel cancer, commented: “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.”

Ms Squire was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2017 following pain in her abdomen. She received chemotherapy treatment and an operation to remove her tumour before she was given the all clear in 2018.

She continued: “Dame Deborah 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.”

In her battle with the disease, Dame Deborah underwent several operations and treatments, including experimental drugs, but eventually stopped active treatment and started receiving end-of-life care in Woking, Surrey, alongside her husband and two children.

She continued to speak out about bowel cancer, which is the fourth most common cancer in England, and launched the BowelBabe fund on JustGiving in the final months of her life.

Dame Deborah, whose posthumous book ‘How To Live When You Could Be Dead’ is due to be published later this week, has thus far raised £7,474,575 for Cancer Research UK.

In recognition of her remarkable campaigning, she received a Damehood as well as a visit from Prince William.

Deborah James recieves her Damehood from Prince William: Credit Instagram @bowellbabe

When she was moved to end-of-life care, Dame Deborah wrote a final message to those following her journey.

She said: "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 just save your life.”

Health and Social Care Secretary Steve Barclay said the figures reflect the “lasting legacy of Dame Deborah James”, and encouraged anyone with symptoms to get checked as soon as possible.