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Dame Debs' family call for action to give cancer patients more time

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DAME Deborah James’ family are today calling for urgent action to give more cancer patients precious time with their loved ones.

In a letter to the leaders of all political parties, the Sun writer’s husband Sebastien Bowen, parents Alistair and Heather James and siblings, Ben James and Sarah Wieczorek, urge the next Government to commit to a long-term cancer strategy to “drive earlier diagnosis and reduce inequalities in access to treatment and care”.

Dame Deborah's husband Sebastien, along with other family members, have urged the next Government to commit to a long-term cancer strategy

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Dame Deborah’s husband Sebastien, along with other family members, have urged the next Government to commit to a long-term cancer strategyCredit: DEBORAH JAMES
The family are calling on all parties to commit to a plan to ensure more cancer patients are diagnosed early

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The family are calling on all parties to commit to a plan to ensure more cancer patients are diagnosed earlyCredit: bowelbabe/Instagram
Deborah's parents Alistair and Heather say the family are proud to continue their daughter's work

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Deborah’s parents Alistair and Heather say the family are proud to continue their daughter’s workCredit: Stewart Williams

Harnessing Deborah’s fierce campaigning spirit, the family said: “We are not unique in losing a loved one too soon to cancer.

“Many families across the country feel the same heartbreak every day. But it does not have to be this way.”

Dame Debs died in June 2022, five and a half years after she was diagnosed with stage 4 bowel cancer.

The 40-year-old mum to Hugo, 16, and Eloise, 14, was a tireless campaigner – banging the drum for all cancer patients, raising awareness, urging people to “check your poo” while spreading her message of holding onto “rebellious hope”.

Dad Alistair, 68, added: “Deborah would wholeheartedly back this urgent call to politicians, she would have led the charge on behalf of all cancer patients.

“She was a passionate advocate of early diagnosis, and today, we are continuing the work she started.

“Driving earlier diagnosis must be a key part to ensure everyone has access to the care they need, when they need it.”

Driven by a burning desire to stop others facing her fate, Deborah spent the last seven weeks of her life raising a staggering £7million for her Bowelbabe Fund – which now stands at over £12m. 

Her family has now joined forces with Cancer Research UK,to support the charity’s Longer, Better Lives manifesto which calls for a re-doubling of efforts to recruit more NHS staff and invest in diagnostic equipment.

Dame Debs’ family added: “Too many people are waiting too long to be diagnosed because of a fundamental lack of capacity in diagnostic services, particularly in endoscopy, which is a vital test for bowel cancer.

Sun Health Explainer: What is cancer?

“NHS staff are doing their best, but the reality is that our health service does not have the resources available to see cancer patients in a timely manner.”

Stark figures show that while NHS England requires that 75 per cent of patients urgently referred are diagnosed or have cancer ruled out within 28 days – the target has yet to be met for gastrointestinal cancers, including bowel.

Had that target been achieved, the latest figures suggest that in February alone, around 3,800 people would’ve found out they had cancer on time.

Dame Debs was only too aware of the fact early diagnosis saves lives. 

The Sun’s No Time 2 Lose campaign

The UK currently has three cancer screening programmes on the NHS, to detect bowel, cervical and breast cancers.

But, for years, Brits were been subjected to a postcode lottery when it comes to bowel cancer screening.

In Scotland, screening starts at the age of 50.

Yet, in England, Wales and Northern Ireland people had to wait until their 60th birthdays to be invited to take the life-saving tests.

That’s why, in April 2018, The Sun launched the No Time 2 Lose campaign – spearheaded by the late Dame Deborah James – calling on the Government to lower the screening age to 50, a move which could save an estimated 4,500 lives annually.

In the summer of 2018, health secretary Matt Hancock announced screening in England would be lowered to 50 – marking a victory for The Sun and campaigners.

In April 2021, NHS England began to reduce the age range starting with those aged 56 gradually.

The rollout will be phased over four years to include people aged 50-59.

In Wales you are invited if you’re aged between 55 and 74, and in Northern Ireland people still have to wait until 60 to receive an invite.

Each of the bowel cancer screening programmes in the UK use home tests called faecal immunochemical test (FIT).

If bowel cancer is caught at the earliest stage, around nine in 10 people will survive for five years or more.

This plummets to just one in 10 when the disease is caught at the latest stage, as Deborah’s was.

Calling on all parties to put cancer patients at the heart of their manifestos, her family added: “We are calling on all political parties to make the upcoming general election a landmark moment… helping to give more people affected by cancer more time with the people they love.”

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Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, Michelle Mitchell, echoed the family’s heartfelt plea.

“Right now, people affected by cancer are not getting the care they need and deserve.

“We urgently need more staff and equipment for the NHS, alongside a reform of cancer services.

“With cancer cases set to rise, we need assurance that cancer is a priority for the UK Government.

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Debs' husband Sebastien, her parents Alistair and Heather, brother Ben and sister Sarah have all signed the letter

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Debs’ husband Sebastien, her parents Alistair and Heather, brother Ben and sister Sarah have all signed the letterCredit: Getty Images – Getty
Children Hugo, 16, and Eloise, 14, pictured here at their mum's funeral in July 2022

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Children Hugo, 16, and Eloise, 14, pictured here at their mum’s funeral in July 2022Credit: Dan Charity
In the seven weeks before she died, Deborah raised a staggering £7million for her Bowelbabe Fund - which now stands at £12m

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In the seven weeks before she died, Deborah raised a staggering £7million for her Bowelbabe Fund – which now stands at £12mCredit: Graham Prentice

“That’s why we are urging all political parties to commit to publishing a strategy within one year of the general election.”

Dame Debs family urged the public to support their call by signing CRUK’s Longer, Better Lives campaign letter – visit cancerresearchuk.org

Dame Deborah James’ family’s letter in full

DAME Deborah James’ family are calling on the next Government to commit to a long-term cancer strategy, to give more cancer patients time with their loved ones. Here is the letter in full…

Dear party leaders,

Across the UK, many families, like ours, are all too familiar with how devastating cancer can be.  

Deborah was 35 years old when she was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2016. To the world she was known as ‘Bowelbabe’, a proud campaigner for people affected by cancer.

She smashed stigmas around cancer and was a passionate advocate of the importance of early diagnosis.

She would tell anyone who would listen to ‘check your poo!’.

To her loved ones, Deborah was also a wonderful daughter, mother, wife, sister and friend. We miss her every day and are so proud of her legacy and that she was made a Dame by Prince William shortly before her death in June 2022.

Deborah’s inspiring work continues through the Bowelbabe Fund for Cancer Research UK.

Established to support projects she was passionate about, the Fund supports cutting-edge research into early detection and personalised medicine, raises awareness of signs and symptoms of bowel cancer and tackles taboos.

So far, the Fund has committed over £10m to projects we know will make a vital difference.

It’s an honour to continue what she started.

Today, during Bowel Cancer Awareness Month, we are joining Cancer Research UK’s call from ‘Longer, better lives: A manifesto for cancer research and care’ for the Government to publish a long-term cancer strategy for England within one year of the general election.

What we want and need to see in this cancer strategy are more measures in place that will drive earlier diagnosis and reduce inequalities in access to treatment and care.

This means growing the NHS cancer workforce and increasing investment in vital diagnostic equipment to ensure everyone who needs it can access the right test, in the right place, at the right time. 

Diagnosing cancer at an earlier stage saves lives.

However, there has been little improvement in the proportion of bowel cancers being diagnosed at an early stage over recent years.

In England, if bowel cancer is diagnosed at the earliest stage, around 9 in 10 people will survive their disease for five years or more. This becomes around 1 in 10 when diagnosed at the latest stage. 

Too many people are waiting too long to be diagnosed because of a fundamental lack of capacity in diagnostic services, particularly in endoscopy, which is a vital diagnostic test for bowel cancer.

NHS staff are doing their best, but the reality is that our health service does not have the resources available to see cancer patients in a timely manner. 

NHS England aims for 75 per cent of patients who have been urgently referred to have cancer diagnosed or ruled out within 28 days.

This has yet to be met for lower gastrointestinal cancers (which includes bowel). The latest data shows that had it been met, in February 2024 alone around 3,800 more people would have found out whether they had cancer on time.

And the challenge is only growing.

Earlier this month, the Bowelbabe Fund for Cancer Research UK highlighted that the number of people diagnosed with bowel cancer is set to increase from around 42,800 each year now to around 47,700 by 2040. 

That is why we are calling on all political parties to make the upcoming general election a landmark moment by committing to a long-term cancer strategy for England, helping to give more people affected by cancer more time with the people they love. 

Sadly, we are not unique as a family in losing a loved one too soon to cancer. Many families across the country feel the same heartbreak every day. But it does not have to be this way. 

People affected by cancer must be at the heart of this general election. We hope you agree.

Yours sincerely,

Alistair James, Heather James, Sebastien Bowen, Ben James and Sarah Wieczorek

Dame Deborah James’ family 

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