Let's digest some facts. Around 110 people a day are told they have bowel cancer - that's about 41,000 people a year who have to explain to friends and family what their future might hold. A further 620,000 individuals live with Inflammatory Bowel Disease often involving crippling abdominal pain, food intolerance, bloating and diarrhoea, among other symptoms. Perhaps it wasn't surprising then that when patient.co.uk compiled a list of the most viewed health topics in 2014, three of the top five were bowel-related.
It certainly wasn't a surprise to me. Just over a month ago, I got the call; a second loved one lost to bowel cancer. My nan, Daisy, had passed away just a few months after diagnosis. At 89 she had survived the Second World War, moved to Canada and back with my granddad and gone on to outlive my mother, Carol, who also died of bowel cancer 8 years ago. Bowel cancer has not been kind to my family; there is no mistaking that. The irony that a disease which carries increased risk for those overweight and unhealthy, should strike my slim, fit, vegetarian mum, is not lost on me. What is lost on me however is that for both my mum and nan, the diagnosis came all too late. When caught early, nine out of ten people will survive the disease, yet in many cases it seems, bowel cancer goes unmentioned for too long.
My nan spent a year with an "upset tummy" before her symptoms were divulged to anyone, including a doctor. The consultant was clear, it was too late to act; the cancer had spread too far. My nan, like many others, had explained away her bowel problems to herself in a language she felt comfortable with. Her "upset tummy" was just one of those embarrassing things we all get now and then. Had she disclosed sooner however that she had blood in her stools, or diarrhoea, constipation and abdominal pain, things may have been very different. Sadly her story reflects public trend. A survey this week, commissioned for Gut Week 2015, reveals 59% of Brits believe talking about poo is a taboo subject. But why is that the case when the prevalence of bowel disease is no secret and the key to an all-clear lies in early detection?
I can't help but think that perhaps the British stiff upper lip undoubtedly plays its part in the poo taboo. Channel 4 have just finished airing 'Very British Problems' in which episode three humorously pokes fun at a nation who feel public displays of emotion are best left to some of our European counterparts and who use the words 'I'm fine' to mask a situation which may not be fine at all. But what these very British examples show is that our tendency to gloss over problems does not help make them better. In the case of bowel cancer and bowel disease, openness about our symptoms is the crucial step to finding the right treatment or a cure at an early stage.
While writing this post I googled 'cancer blogs' to find all but two listings on page one were about breast cancer, a disease given prominence and newspaper coverage thanks to its association with beauty in the face of illness. Angelina Jolie epitomises this and it is fantastic that breast cancer campaigners have been able to raise so much awareness of the disease. When we compare UK National Cancer Research Institute (NCRI) figures for breast and bowel cancer, the contrast is clear. Breast cancer accounted for 7.7% of cancer deaths in 2014 and received £40.32 million in funding. Bowel cancer accounted for 10% of cancer deaths and yet received £25 million in funding.
In short, talking about our loo habits is not glamorous, and it never will be but we can't use that as an excuse to keep it a taboo. If people can explain their breast cancer symptoms and proclaim they are undeterred in the face of them, then people like my nan should feel no shame in doing exactly the same for bowel cancer.
But steps are being taken to raise awareness. From the 31st of August - 6th September Gut Week 2015 seeks to break the poo taboo which holds people back from speaking about their bowels. Big Breakfast star Gaby Roslin, who has been touched by cancer, acts as Gut Week ambassador and www.loveyourgut.com provides information on digestive health and diet. I am sure it will take more than a week to change perceptions but it's a brilliant place to start. I hope for the sake of your loved ones you feel able to engage in conversation to create an open dialogue if something doesn't feel right. Only then can we truly get to the bottom of bowel disease.