Each year, 40,000 Britons are diagnosed with bowel cancer and the disease claims 16,000 lives. But while in Scotland everyone over 50 is sent home-testing kits to detect traces of blood in their stools, patients in England and Wales have to wait until 60 before they are sent a hidden blood stool test.
Last year, the NHS introduced the flexible sigmoidoscopy, a five-minute procedure in which a thin tube is passed into the lower part of the colon to detect, and if necessary remove, abnormalities that could develop into cancer. The plan is to offer it to all Britons when they turn 55.
A similar examination, a colonoscopy, is more definitive as it can look further within the body. However, it takes longer and the patient needs to be sedated.
Campaigners believe that if sigmoidoscopy were widely available, it would stop 5,000 people a year developing bowel cancer and prevent 3,000 deaths. Cases such as Judith’s, they say, prove the screening programme should be extended to people as soon as they reach 50.
Judith has two grown-up children, Jake, 33, and Jessica, 30, and lives in Horwich, Lancashire, with second husband Alan, a retired safety consultant. She was diagnosed with bowel cancer at the Royal Preston Hospital in February 2010, two years after her initial symptoms.
She had moved back to Britain the previous year from Dubai, where Alan had been working, to care for her mother Mildred, who had severe dementia.
‘I went to see the GP at Christmas,’ she says, ‘after I began getting blood in my stools. I was in excruciating pain going to the toilet. After an examination, I was immediately sent for a colonoscopy. Alan had gone back to Dubai a few days beforehand – he had offered to stay but I assumed it was nothing serious as I led a healthy lifestyle – so my son Jake took me to the hospital. He was in the waiting room when they discovered the tumour. It was so big it was almost causing a total blockage.
‘I was so stunned, I couldn’t really take it in. Then Jake came in and I said, “It’s cancer.” He just sat down in the chair and was lost for words. I rang my husband from the hospital and he flew back the next day. Obviously he was terribly upset. It has been a tough time for both of us.’
After scans, Judith was told the cancer had spread to her liver, meaning it had reached the most life-threatening Stage Four – if she had been diagnosed when it was Stage One, she would have had a 90 per cent chance of survival.
‘The consultant put his hand on my shoulder and said, “You’ve got a huge hurdle to climb.” It was then that I realised the enormity of the situation.’
Judith had two operations, followed by two bouts of chemotherapy. Her first operation, in March 2010 at the Royal Preston Hospital, was to remove the tumour in her bowel. She then had six weeks’ recovery before three months of chemotherapy. ‘The operation went very well,’ she said. ‘But I found the chemotherapy devastating. I was hooked up to a drip in hospital for a couple of hours every fortnight and had to take tablets twice a day at home. The side effects were horrendous. I was nauseous, fatigued, had headaches, lockjaw, tingling in my hands and feet, twitching eyes and was sensitive to heat and cold, but the most worrying thing was that I had heart spasms.’
The second operation, at the Royal Blackburn Hospital in September 2010, was to remove the tumour on her liver. This too was followed by three months of chemotherapy.
In January last year, Judith discovered she had developed secondary lung cancer. She now has five lesions on her lungs, as well as a tumour in her pelvic lymph gland, and is counting on the anti-cancer drug Cetuximab to prolong her life.
Judith’s consultant Dr Shabbir Susnerwala, who specialises in colorectal cancer, is keen to alert IBS sufferers to the dangers of missing the vital signs of bowel cancer.
‘Bowel cancer is far more common in those aged over 60 but that isn’t to say you cannot develop it before. I diagnose 400 people a year, and of those there are sometimes one or two as young as 25.
‘Even if you have suffered with digestive troubles for a number of years, you must visit your GP if symptoms suddenly worsen. If their diagnosis is dismissive and you fear there is something seriously wrong, you should demand to be referred to a specialist.
‘It should be noted that those who have a family history of the disease are entitled to earlier screenings on the NHS, although how early depends on each individual case.’
For Judith, there is no hope of a cure.
‘In January last year, I was given a prognosis of 18 months,’ she says. ‘I am trying to see that as a positive because it could have been much less.
‘I’m at that age when I could have retired and enjoyed my family. I feel cheated that I won’t be able to do so. But we have all been born and we all have to die. My time here is limited.
‘I just hope my experience acts as a warning to other IBS sufferers to be aware that changes in their bowel habits could mean they have cancer.’