In 2016 journalist Deborah James (aka BowelBabe) was diagnosed with incurable bowel cancer. She vowed to share her battle and help find a cure.

In five years, Dame Deborah has raised millions of pounds for the BowelBabe Fund for Cancer Research. Thanks to her inspirational work, radio and TV appearances, she’s helped countless people spot bowel cancer sooner and live longer, fuller lives.

Here, bowel cancer survivor Teresa Whitfield sends her emotional thanks to Dame Deborah for saving her life. The 52-year old marketing consultant lives in South Croydon with her husband Will, 48, and daughter Bethan, 14…

“Dear Deborah,

I remember having an upset stomach and blood in my poo on holiday in July 2018 and thinking, my body’s trying to tell me something. I put it down to dodgy food. But my poo didn’t look normal – more like undigested tomatoes – and I developed a pain on the left side of my abdomen. I didn’t know what the symptoms of bowel cancer were. It didn’t even register with me.

That October, I saw you raising awareness on the Lorraine show and the penny dropped like a stone. You spoke about bowel cancer so openly and a feeling of impending doom washed over me.

It took every bone of strength in my body to pick up the phone and call the doctor. Something didn’t feel right, but she didn’t listen. She said: “Don’t worry about it, you’re young, fit and healthy.”

I felt reassured, but my symptoms got worse. “It’s one of those things,” she told me weeks later. “Your job is making you stressed.”

I was told anxiety can cause IBS. I did feel ill, tired and anxious. So I resigned from my job but I didn’t get better. “Would you like some anxiety tablets?” she asked. “There’s nothing to worry about.”

In February 2019, I had two severe episodes on the toilet. Enough was enough – I ran to the doctors in distress, but she placed her hand on my arm and asked: “What would you like me to do to make you feel better?”

I didn’t have enough symptoms to trigger NHS intervention – their treatment was six weeks of pile cream. Thankfully, I had private healthcare and got referred for tests. Within three weeks I was diagnosed with bowel cancer aged 49. Being told I had cancer was devastating and the first thing I asked my consultant was “can you fix it?” I have a husband and a young daughter – failure wasn't an option!

Thankfully, there were treatment options for me.

It sounds silly, but in some ways I was relieved to hear I had bowel cancer – I was right all along.

A week later I went to Las Vegas with my sister, which was already planned. It cleared my mind and I returned ready to tackle the cancer head on!

Three days on I had a nine-hour operation for a lower bowel resection at London Bridge Hospital. I spent a night in intensive care and another seven nights in hospital.

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My cancer was a stage two 3cm tumour. They removed it, and 18 lymph nodes, during surgery. As it’d spread to one lymph node, it was now stage three. I needed six months of chemotherapy to 'mop up' any stray nasties. The tumour was starting to ripple the outside of my bowel so it was only time before it would’ve spread.

Chemo made me tired all the time and I suffered really badly from nausea and tingly and freezing cold hands – I wore gloves in July. Still, I attended my daughters Junior Prom and sports day and even managed a day at Royal Ascot in-between cycles.

I’ve travelled the globe since my diagnosis, from trekking in Peru to Iceland and the Grand Canyon. You only get one life, so live it now.

My message to anyone who’s worried about symptoms or embarrassed to speak out, is please, tell your doctor – it’s not always bad news.

I want to do everything I can to make sure younger people get access to tests and enable earlier detection of bowel cancer. Raising awareness of the symptoms is crucial but so is ensuring that GPs are able to refer anyone with symptoms regardless of your age.

I didn’t know I had the strength to get through this journey. Now Will and I talk about our retirement dreams and I’m excited to see my beautiful daughter grow up.

But I’m still scared. Every time I feel pain I assume it’s cancer. And I have ‘scanxiety’ at my annual check up, thinking the cancer could return.

Whenever I have a bad day, my husband says: “Look at your life ahead – there is so much to look forward to.”

Dame Deborah, without you I promise I’d be dead. Not only have you raised awareness, you’ve destroyed the taboo around poo. We’ve never met but I’ve been in contact twice through video messages played on Lorraine. You remembered me, and sent your well wishes – it meant so much to me.

I consider myself lucky. I’m still here, and I can spread the word. You saved my life and you’re a total inspiration with the greatest legacy. I feel a responsibility to make sure that legacy continues.

Deborah, thank you.”

  • Bowel cancer is the fourth most common cancer in the UK and the second biggest cancer killer. Every 15 minutes someone is diagnosed with bowel cancer. That’s nearly 43,000 people every year. For more information visit bowelcanceruk.org.uk

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