Mum ignored test and got cancer says BBC presenter

BBC Wales presenter Lucy Owen has just received her first free NHS bowel cancer screening test. Her mum had bowel cancer surgery three years ago, after ignoring the home test kits she had received over the years.

Bowel cancer is the UK's second biggest cancer killer, and takes more than 16,800 lives annually. Lucy has been talking to her mum about why she is now encouraging us all to grab every opportunity for an early cancer diagnosis.

My mum and I have always been extremely close.

I'm an only child and Patsy was a single mum. So her bowel cancer diagnosis in 2021, when she was 82, rocked us both.

Mum remembers us going to see the surgeon who would operate on her.

"He said I've got a space next week and we can do the operation for you but I'm afraid you'll have to have a stoma," she said.

"And in actual fact I was really quite pleased about it because by then I thought I'm going to be in Marie Curie (a cancer hospice) and that was it, so it was actually quite a relief."

The age to receive a home test for bowel cancer lowered to 51 last year, and will go down again to 50 this year. I'm 52, so that's why one recently landed on my doormat.

It was only when Mum's symptoms became really severe that she finally went to see her GP.

"I had to admit to myself that the changes had become quite acute and I couldn't go on much longer without sorting it out," she said. "I had to explain that I thought that something was wrong and could they send me a test, and they did."

Mum is encouraging me, and others who receive home tests, not to ignore them like she did.

As she explained: "You know how it is, you put it in the drawer you never open or put it behind the cushion you never move...

"You just put it off. I wish now that I hadn't of course, because it could have been treated so much earlier if I hadn't been so stupid."

What are some of the symptoms of bowel cancer?

  • A persistent change in bowel habit - going more often, with looser stools and sometimes tummy pain

  • Blood in the stools without other symptoms, such as piles

  • Abdominal pain, discomfort or bloating always brought on by eating

Source: NHS UK

"I wish I'd done the first one that came through, in hindsight. So I really would urge everyone not to put it in the drawer you never open.

"It's just nothing, you put it in the post and that's it. And if you get a telephone call saying, we need to look further into this, well perhaps you've saved your life by doing this."

Bowel cancer causes almost 1,000 deaths in Wales every year. Cancer Research Wales said historically it was people over the age of 70 being diagnosed, but now there is an increase in middle age too, particularly in people under 50.

The charity said that while earlier testing would lead to earlier diagnosis for more people, the NHS was already struggling with a huge screening backlog.

It said more than 7,000 people in Wales were waiting for a colonoscopy and up to 50% of those had been waiting more than 14 weeks.

The Welsh government said it was working with the NHS to develop capacity for colonoscopies, including training more staff.

The uptake on the home testing kits is about 60%, with the lowest among people who live in deprived areas of Wales among people of certain ethnic groups.

But why aren't more of us doing them?

Dr Lee Campbell from Cancer Research Wales said there remained a bit of a taboo about poo.

The charity goes to schools and events with a giant inflatable bowel to try to educate people about the different bowel issues.

"There can be an element of disgust with using the current test because it requires taking a stool sample," said Dr Campbell.

"And while the new FIT (faecal immunochemical test) is an improvement, because you only need to take one stool sample as opposed to three stool samples from the older test, it still has that element of of yuckiness for some people.

"We need to normalise the discussion, it is part of us and and it really is important to be able to be aware of your health and be empowered to look after yourself that bit better and participate in screening - and undertaking the test as is such is one of those such things."

If you do have to have a colonoscopy, my Mum says not to worry.

"They put a camera up and it sounds horrific but it wasn't actually," she said.

"You can opt to have an anaesthetic... but I thought I just want to get this over and go home please. But honestly, it was really nothing, you just lay on your side and the camera takes the photographs."

'It might save my life'

I've followed my Mum's advice and done the FIT test. It was simple, quick and easy.

I can't say it was particularly pleasant - I mean, nobody really wants to have to catch their poo in toilet paper and a dip a little test stick in it, do they? But, after my mum's close call, I'm more than happy to do it.

It might save my life.

Mum says she's incredibly grateful to the NHS, and so am I to still have her with me.

Now I just have to hope that my test comes back all clear.