Bowel Cancer: ‘Mention bums and poo and you can see people cringe’

Bernadette Healy.
Bernadette Healy.

A Derry woman who survived bowel cancer has urged local people worried about symptoms to face their fears and see the doctor.

Bernadette Healy was diagnosed with the disease, the UK’s second biggest cancer killer, when she was in her 40s.

She’s now 60 and in good health - but Bernadette wants to use her experience to help others going through the same thing.

So the Derry grandmother is backing Beating Bowel Cancer’s ‘Lifting the Lid’ campaign during Bowel Cancer Awareness Month.

“Mention bums and poo and you can see people cringe,” said Bernadette. “But bowel cancer is actually the UK’s second biggest cancer killer so it’s essential that we talk about the disease and its symptoms so more people know what to look out for and are not embarrassed to get checked out if necessary.

“Bowel cancer is the unspeakable disease because of the embarrassment factor. But doctors are only doing their jobs, don’t be embarrassed.

“Ignoring symptoms because you don’t realise what they might be or because they are a bit embarrassing can delay your diagnosis and this could be life-threatening.”

And the figures back this up. If diagnosed early, nine out of ten bowel cancer patients will survive for more than five years, but if diagnosed at a late stage, only one in ten will survive this long.

Bernadette was in her 40s when she was first diagnosed. She had symptoms for six weeks before she went to her GP.

“I didn’t have blood loss,” she says, “but I needed to go to the toilet every time I ate something. I have kept a diary from that time in my life and I wrote ‘something’s not right here.”

Despite the fact that Bernadette looked healthy and hadn’t lost weight her GP took a blood test and referred her to a colorectal surgeon who told her she had a ‘large mass’ in her rectum.

More tests followed, she was officially diagnosed with bowel cancer, and given radiotherapy in Belfast.

I stayed in the hospital during the treatment,” she says, “I was exhausted, when I came home I would sit listening to my son Kevin playing the piano. He played that piano all weekend for me until I had to go back to Belfast.

“During that time I lost three stones in weight, but I’m here to tell my tale.”

She then spent ten days in hospital after a successful operation which was followed by six months of chemo. She had needed an ileostomy but this was later reversed.

“I remember a priest coming in to talk to me when I was in hospital, Father Porter, who really helped me through that time. I found out later that he had been killed. I wrote to his parents to let him know what a difference he had made to me,” said Bernadette.

Four years later both Bernadette’s brother and sister were diagnosed with bowel cancer.

Because of Bernadette’s experience both were diagnosed early. Bernadette’s brother needed only surgery and her sister Veronica had surgery and a six month course of chemo tablets.

All three are now well, but despite their diagnoses doctors have told them there is no genetic cause in their cases.

Mark Flannagan, Chief Executive of the charity Beating Bowel Cancer, said: “One in four of us are affected by bowel cancer in some way, either directly or through family members and friends. Yet it’s rarely talked about because people are often too embarrassed to discuss the disease and its symptoms.

“As part of Bowel Cancer Awareness Month this April, we hope people in the local area will join Bernadette in supporting Lift the Lid Day and helping to raise greater awareness so people can get diagnosed earlier.”

People can support the campaign simply by talking about bowel cancer – whether it is a chat over coffee about their experience of the disease; inspiring someone to go online and learn about the symptoms; or encouraging someone who is worried about the disease to contact their doctor or the Beating Bowel Cancer helpline.

Bernadette says: “Someone is diagnosed with bowel cancer every 15 minutes and it claims a life every half an hour. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Early diagnosis saves lives so together we must raise the profile of the disease and its symptoms if we are to improve survival rates.

“I want people to know this isn’t an old person’s disease. It can affect anyone.”

For more information and to get involved with Lift the Lid, please visit: