We need to stop being too embarrassed to talk about our poo - that’s the message from a terminally ill cancer nurse who is raising awareness of bowel cancer this month.
Laura Harris, 42, is campaigning for younger people to become more aware of the disease and its symptoms as part of Bowel Cancer Awareness Month.
Laura, a chemotherapy nurse from Barnstaple, was diagnosed with stage four bowel cancer two years ago, when she was just 41.
Laura said: “Bowel cancer has always been considered an ‘old person’s disease’, but it is getting more prevalent in the young.
“You often find in older patients who have bowel cancer that they are overweight or sedentary; they may have smoked in the past.
“But in younger patients bowel cancer is not following the same pattern. They are people like me, who are active and slim and eat a generally healthy diet.”
More prevalent in the young
Bowel cancer affects one in 20 people, but screening is only offered to people aged 55 and over.
Laura believes part of the problem stems from the stigma of talking about bowel habits.
“There has been a huge rise in awareness about breast and testicular cancer, and now we need to learn from those campaigns,” she said.
“We need to get around the taboo of talking about poo; it’s a bodily function we all do, and we need to break down the boundaries and not feel embarrassed by it.”
Laura tells her story
Laura’s health began to deteriorate around nine months before her diagnosis.
“My bowels never worked properly, but about nine months before I was diagnosed I wasn’t able to open my bowels and I was relying on laxatives,” she said.
“I had back and leg pain but I put that down to my job as a nurse and always being on my feet.”
Laura’s dependence on laxatives became worse, until even they were not working, and the pain became excruciating.
“I was crawling up the stairs on my hands and knees because I was so exhausted and I was due to have a colonoscopy to find out what was wrong,” she said.
“I had to drink this huge laxative drink the night before and I just couldn’t; I hadn’t been to the toilet in weeks and I kept throwing it back up.
“My husband Paul said enough was enough and took me to A&E.
“Within 24 hours I was told I had cancer. I came out of hospital on the Friday and started chemo on the Monday.”
Breaking the taboo
Bravely sharing her own story to try and raise awareness, Laura wants young people to recognise the disease can affect anyone.
Despite a year of chemotherapy, in January this year, Laura was told it was no longer working.
Following a successful crowdfunding appeal which raised £90,000 within a matter of days, Laura is now having Bevacizumab in a bid to give her more time.
She added: “As a nurse I have seen a big variation in the age of bowel cancer patients, from much younger than me to much older.
“The good thing is people in the more advanced stages are living longer nowadays.
“People lead busy lives and it’s easy to put things off or not notice how long these symptoms have been going on for.
“But if we can break the taboo of talking about it, we can catch it earlier.”
According to Bowel Cancer UK, symptoms can be varied and anyone worried about anything out of the ordinary should speak to their GP.
Symptoms of bowel cancer
Dr Lisa Wilde, director of research and external affairs at Bowel Cancer UK and Beating Bowel Cancer, said: “Every year in the UK, more than 2,500 people under 50 are diagnosed with bowel cancer, a 48 per cent increase since 2004.
“Bowel cancer is not just an older person’s disease.
“Being aware of the key symptoms and visiting your GP if things don’t feel right can help increase chances of an early diagnosis.
“If you experience any of the symptoms of bowel cancer or just don’t feel quite right, no matter your age, please visit your GP.”
- Bleeding from your bottom or blood in your poo
- A persistent and unexplained change in bowel habits
- Unexplained weight loss
- Extreme tiredness for no obvious reason
- A pain or lump in your tummy
For more information on bowel cancer, symptoms, treatment and diagnosis, visit the Bowel Cancer UK website.
To help raise awareness of bowel cancer, Bowel Cancer UK is also giving away free copies of a handy symptoms guide here.