It can be all too easy to think of bowel cancer as an older person’s disease, but in reality it impacts people of all ages – more than 2,500 people under 50 are diagnosed with bowel cancer in the UK every year. And Deborah James, co-presenter of podcast You Me and the Big C, is one of them.
The 37-year-old, who is being treated for stage 4 bowel cancer, stars in a powerful new photo series alongside other people who either had, or still live with, bowel cancer, as well as those who lost family members to the disease.
“Bowel cancer can happen to anyone of us. Any age, race – you are never too young, fit or ugly,” said James, who lives in London. “It tears lives apart. We lose loved ones and it robs us of futures. Together more people can stop people dying of bowel cancer.”
To mark the start of Bowel Cancer Awareness Month this April, Bowel Cancer UK commissioned photographer Sophie Mayanne to photograph people impacted by the disease. The result is a candid collection of photos showing a range of emotions, from confidence and love to sadness and loss.
Bowel cancer is the fourth most common cancer in the UK, with almost 42,000 people diagnosed. Just this week, the BBC’s Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen spoke about his diagnosis for the first time and said he is currently having chemotherapy for it.
Photographer Mayanne said her grandad lived with bowel cancer in his final years, which is why she wanted to take part in the project. “It’s important to show the different angles of living with cancer,” she said, “as each person’s journey is as unique, as it is emotional.
“I think the most important thing people can take away from these images is that life doesn’t stop when you are diagnosed with cancer. My grandad was still my grandad when he was diagnosed, as are mothers still mothers, partners still partners and family still family.”
Jaimin Patel, 35 from London was diagnosed with stage 3 bowel cancer in 2013. Three years later he found out it was incurable.
“I want people to see that although I might be young(ish), having bowel cancer doesn’t mean that life is over,” said Patel, who is married with a young son and has a stoma following bowel surgery.
[Read More: 9 Things People With Stomas Want You To Know]
“I hope that getting the picture of normality out to those suffering with this cancer will encourage them to try different things and not feel restricted in their life, because if I can lead as normal a life as possible, by being positive and trying new things, you can give yourself a better chance of making the most of the time you are living and not worry about the time after.”
Richard Bingham, 40, from East Sussex was diagnosed with stage 4 bowel cancer in 2016. He lives in Rye with his partner Bekky (also featured in the portrait series). Since his diagnosis he has undergone bowel and liver surgery, radiotherapy and is currently having chemotherapy.
“Bowel cancer – indeed any cancer – is so often unseen, with the patient appearing entirely normal while the disease is on the rampage on the inside, and comes in so many different shapes and forms that it is vital people understand this, especially to allow for early diagnosis,” he said.
“The photo shoot was an amazing experience, which left both Bekky and I feeling emotional, part of a community and privileged to be involved in such an awesome and meaningful campaign.”
Katy Bruce Jaja, 34 from Essex was diagnosed with stage 4 bowel cancer six months ago in 2018, after her symptoms were missed whilst she was pregnant with her youngest son.
Jaja is married and a mum of two boys, who are also featured in the portrait series. She is currently in treatment and has just finished chemotherapy.
“My life completely changed a few months ago,” she said. “Bowel cancer was not something that I ever thought about. As a young woman I was aware of things like breast and cervical cancer checks but I always associated bowel cancer with being a lot older. I’m 34. Unfortunately being young doesn’t make you immune.
“More awareness needs to be raised. If you’re experiencing symptoms go to see your GP, the earlier the better.”
Symptoms Of Bowel Cancer
:: Bleeding from your bottom and/or blood in your poo,
:: A persistent and unexplained change in bowel habit,
:: Unexplained weight loss,
:: Extreme tiredness for no obvious reason,
:: A pain or lump in your tummy.
Barbara Hibbert, 61 from Harrogate was diagnosed with stage 4 bowel cancer in 2014. A former teacher, she is a mother to two daughters and a grandmother. Barbara has undergone bowel surgery and lost her hair as a result of chemotherapy, which is quite rare for people with bowel cancer.
’’I want to show that a stage 4, doesn’t mean that you stop living – you just have to live faster because you have less time,” she said. “A terminal diagnosis isn’t a good thing to receive, but it does give you time to prepare and to make the most of the time you have left.
“I put off getting my symptoms checked and that delay meant that when my cancer was found it was already severe. It’s very easy to persuade yourself that you shouldn’t bother the busy doctor or be one of the ‘worried well’ clogging up the surgery, but it’s so important to get yourself checked, even if you are overweight, drink too much, don’t take much exercise and are menopausal – all excuses for not taking action in my case.”
Margaret Chung, 66 from Buckinghamshire sadly lost her daughter Annabel to bowel cancer in 2016. She was just 36 and died seven months after being diagnosed with the disease.
“There isn’t a word in the dictionary that can express just how awful it was to lose Annabel,” said Chung. “Especially knowing that if her symptoms had been taken seriously earlier, she might still be with us.
“When she was here Annabel touched so many people’s lives so knowing that through this, she has contributed and is still helping people, is a life saver for me. I just wish she was here.”
Gemma Savory, 34, from the West Midlands, was initially diagnosed with stage 3 bowel cancer in 2014, but three years later it spread to her lungs (stage 4). Since being diagnosed she has had chemotherapy, lung and abdominoperineal resection surgerym and now has a permanent stoma bag and is on dialysis.
“It’s really important to show that anyone, at any age can be affected by bowel cancer,” she said. “Cancer doesn’t pick an age, colour or gender, it’s indiscriminate and it is life-changing. This shoot gave me the opportunity to embrace my scars, gain some much needed confidence and feel proud of how far I’ve come.”
Reginald Bull, 84, from Hampshire was diagnosed with stage 1 bowel cancer when he was 53. Though he was given the all clear, the fear of the cancer coming back and the trauma he went through left him with chronic depression. With the support of his wife, Maureen (also pictured), Bull sought help.
He said: “Taking part [in the photoshoot] made me feel that in some small way I might help others who one day may have to face all the traumas associated with being diagnosed with bowel cancer and for that I am very grateful.”
Seraphine Uwimana, 49 from London lost her husband, Antoine, in 2016 after he died from bowel cancer. The couple had been together for 26 years and had three children together.
“What I wish, is that if anyone has those symptoms then they go to the doctor as soon as they see them,” she said. “Antoine didn’t and maybe if he did, they would have caught it sooner and he would still be here now.
“The thing I found hardest about losing Antoine wasn’t losing my husband, it was losing my counsellor, advisor and best friend. I don’t want anyone else to go through that.”
Stuart Cock, 44 from Swindon was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2017. A married dad to four, he had bowel surgery, six months of chemotherapy and due to the impact his diagnosis had on his mental health, is still receiving treatment for this.
“As a dad to four I know that because of my diagnosis, my kids are at a slightly higher risk than the rest of the population of developing this disease,” he said.
“As a father I want to do everything I can to raise awareness and make sure that by 2050, when my eldest daughter turns 42, the age I was at diagnosis, she is living in a country where nobody dies from this treatable disease.”