University Challenge Contestant Mocked For Studying 'Sphincter Preservation', But Helping Cancer Patients Is 'No Laughing Matter'

On Monday night's University Challenge, Queen Mary University of London contestant Kate Lynes caused something of a Twitter storm when she disclosed that she's studying for a masters degree in "sphincter preservation".

Cue a lot of comments like this on social media:

But it turns out sphincter preservation isn't really funny at all.

In fact, it allows bowel cancer survivors to live a far more comfortable life than they would otherwise be able to, by often eliminating the need for a colostomy.

Dr Helen Webberley, the dedicated GP for Oxford Online Pharmacy, explains how sphincter preservation works.

"The large bowel runs from the lower right hand side of the abdomen where the appendix is, up and then along the top of the abdomen and then back down to end at the rectum and the anus," she tells HuffPostUK Lifestyle.

"When bowel cancer occurs within the bowel, the surgeon must remove a piece of bowel long enough to be completely clear of the cancer, and take enough 'normal' bowel either side of the cancer to ensure it has been completely removed.

"Once this has been removed then the bowel may be stitched back together straight away, or sometimes, the bowel is brought out on to the front of the abdomen as a temporary colostomy, and then closed up later."

Without the sphincter preservation, the cancer may end up too close to the anus. This means that the whole of the anus may need be to taken away and stitched closed.

Then, the patient would have a colostomy and a stoma (colostomy bag) fitted for life, but thanks to the advances in sphincter preservation, this isn't always necessary today.

"Sphincter preservation research looks at new techniques for treating cancer which allows these low bowel cancers to be removed or treated but leaving the functioning anus intact," Dr Webberley says.

"This leaves so many more options open to the future 'normal' functioning for the patient, but we must be careful not to compromise the chance of the cancer returning because it hasn't been cut out with a big enough margin.

"Having a colostomy can be a lifelong misery for some and this research is extremely valuable."

Professor Norman Williams, lead of the Centre for Academic Surgery at Queen Mary University, says: "Sphincter preservation tends to be a taboo subject. But it is certainly no laughing matter".

"A great number of patients with rectal problems including cancer have to undergo major surgery and a significant proportion end up with a permanent stoma whereby the end of the bowel that remains is brought to the surface of the abdominal wall and the effluent is discharged into a bag. Whereas many patients who are left with a stoma endure it with equanimity some do not and suffer distressing psychological and physical problems," he tells HuffPost UK Lifestyle.

"Most patients facing surgery with these rectal problems are often terrified they may end up with a stoma. For many years we together with other units around the world have been exploring methods and techniques which try to restore gastrointestinal continuity without the need for a permanent stoma but at the same time eradicate the disease."

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