Harry Potter star Dame Julie Walters reveals bowel cancer battle

Kristine Tarbert
Senior Lifestyle & Entertainment Producer
Actress Dame Julie Walters has opened up about overcoming bowel cancer (Getty)

Harry Potter star Dame Julie Walters has revealed she was diagnosed with stage-three bowel cancer, but has beaten the horrible disease.

Speaking on the BBC’s flagship Victoria Derbyshire programme, the actress initially thought doctors “must have made a mistake” when she was diagnosed 18 months ago.

The 69-year-old has since been given the “all clear” after undergoing chemotherapy.

She described the shock at being told by a doctor that she had cancer.

"He said: 'Well I,'m worried it is cancer,'" she said. "The impact: "Shock. First of all, shock."

The BAFTA-winning actress initially went to her doctor with indigestion and “slight discomfort”. She later went back complaining of abdominal pain, heartburn, and vomiting.

After being referred to a gastric surgeon, a CT scan revealed it was cancer.

“I was still thinking, 'That's ridiculous, he must have made a mistake',” she remembered, adding she later had “30cm [11.8 inches] taken out of her colon”.

Julie starred as Mrs Wesley in the Harry Potter movies. Photo: Warner Bros

Stage three cancer is defined as a “larger” tumour that may have started to spread into surrounding tissues, as well as cancer cells in the lymph nodes in the area.

Julie reportedly had malignant tissue close to her lymph nodes, with two “primary tumours” in her large intestine. She reluctantly had chemotherapy, which was “fine”, causing no hair loss.

“I've just had a scan and I know [I'm] clear,” she clarified.

Julie Walters is one of Britains most prominent actresses after rising to fame for her portrayal of a mature student learning beside an alcoholic professor played by Michael Caine in the 1983 film Educating Rita.

While she is now "really well", she warns her next film The Secret Garden may be her last, with the ordeal changing her perspective towards acting.

What is bowel cancer? And what are its symptoms?

Bowel cancer, also known as colon or rectal cancer, is a general term for tumours that begin in the large bowel. In 2015, 15,604 new cases of bowel cancer were diagnosed in Australia. It represents the second highest number of cancer deaths in the country.

More than 90 per cent of patients experience one of three sets of symptoms.

The first is blood in the faeces for no obvious reason. A persistent change in bowel habits is another warning sign, with some producing more faeces than normal, which may be runny.

Pain, bloating or discomfort in the lower abdomen should also raise alarm bells. This may occur alongside a loss of appetite or losing weight without trying.

Most of the time, blood in the faeces is caused by haemorrhoids, while a change in bowel habits may come down to something you have eaten. If you experience one or more of the above, or if just one symptom lasts over four weeks, see a GP.

Colon cancer can also trigger bowel obstruction, when a tumour stops waste passing through the digestive system. This triggers severe abdominal pain, always brought on by eating.

Another symptom of obstruction is the midsection “constantly” being swollen. Diagnosis usually involves an examination of the backside, which puts many suspected patients off.

About 42,000 people develop bowel cancer every year in the UK (Getty)

Julie said in her interview she is keen to combat this stigma, stressing “doctors are used to bottoms”.

Almost nine in 10 cases occur in people aged 60 or over. A diet high in red and processed meat, and low in fibre, is another risk. Bowel cancer is more common in those who are overweight, inactive and drink excessively.

Smoking may also raise the risk. Some risk factors cannot be altered, like a family history of bowel cancer or another colon condition, such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.

Is bowel cancer screened for?

Cancer Council Australia recommends that Australians aged 50 and over complete a faecal occult blood test (FOBT) every two years.

FOBT is the most effective population screening tool for detecting early signs of bowel cancer.

Screening kits are usually sent to Australian residents within six months of their 50th birthday.

How is bowel cancer treated?

Treatment depends on where the tumour is in the bowel and if it has spread. Surgery is usually the go-to treatment, removing the cancerous section of the colon.

In more severe cases, chemo or radiotherapy may be required to kill malignant cells.

A newer group of treatments called targeted therapies can increase the effectiveness of chemotherapy and prevent the disease spreading.

These may target “growth factors” on the surface of some cancer cells. If spotted early enough, bowel cancer can be “cured”.

In Australia the five year survival rate for bowel cancer is 69 per cent. In advanced cases, “a cure is highly unlikely”. Treatment then focuses on controlling symptoms and slowing the cancer’s spread.

With additional reporting by Alexandra Thompson.

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