25 April 2024

By Steve Rowley, bowel cancer survivor and patient advocate 

My bowel cancer diagnosis in 2015 was a shock. As far as I knew no-one in my family had cancer and I didn’t know I was at risk. I didn’t know anything about cancer or that I might have been able to prevent it. This situation was rapidly overturned. 

Gathering together all of the family death certificates showed that bowel cancer was present in previous generations, but nobody spoke about it.  

The biggest bowel cancer risk factor is age. I was 60 years at diagnosis and in the zone where cancer risk increases dramatically.  

I had Stage 3C colon cancer, it was well-developed, but thankfully had not spread. My brother was diagnosed two years later, also aged 60. He had advanced Stage 4 colon cancer and died within six months. This made me determined to do something about it. 

Firstly, I discovered that colorectal cancers are generally slow growing, taking 10 years or more to reach a stage where they might spread. This meant that they started when we were in our 40s. On the one hand it means there is a long time in which they might be detected early (the screening age is now being reduced from 60 years to 50 years). On the other hand, the people who need to understand how to take action to prevent bowel cancer are going to be in their 30s and 40s. 

Cancer rehabilitation fitness classes helped me rebuild my life after surgery and chemotherapy. They also turned out to be my way into cancer patient support and advocacy. I then trained as an awareness speaker and became involved in cancer research, from drug trial design through to nutrition and behavioural science. In 2020 I set up an online support group for people diagnosed with bowel cancer. We now have 5,000 members. Day-by-day I see how people are affected across the country, those who make it through and those who do not survive. If ever I need inspiration for awareness raising, I just need to look at their posts. 

Bowel cancers are common, well over 40,000 cases a year in the UK. From our support group we know that when diagnosed, people often make the assumption that it was something they ate that caused it. In the majority of cases the basic cause of the cancer is the ageing of their cells and degradation of the DNA in the gut lining. However, there are ways we can make our cells fitter and our immune systems more capable of stopping cancer. Adopting healthy lifestyle behaviours can reduce our risk of bowel cancer, and also many other cancers. 

Learning from my rehabilitation class, I now promote ‘prevention’ awareness. How exercise and a healthier diet together help to develop a healthy gut microbiome and strengthen the immune system.  

My life has changed significantly in recent years. Twenty years ago, I was reasonably fit as a dance teacher, but had to stop because of knee problems. This may have been a factor in my cancer growth. Now I attend two fitness circuit classes twice a week and walk or run with the dog every day. More dramatically I’ve joined the ParkRun community. At the age of 68, I had never knowingly or willingly run anywhere in my life. Now I am enjoying the camaraderie of the Saturday morning 5k.

Altogether I have better understanding of nutrition thanks to high-profile doctors like Michael Moseley, Tim Spector and Chris Van Tulleken. This knowledge has transformed my diet. I am now very in tune with my gut microbiome and its needs. I really enjoy the challenge of incorporating 30+ varieties of plants into my meals. My wife and I cook everything from scratch. One shelf in the kitchen is now stacked with jars of beans and pulses. I never eat Ultra Processed Foods, but still enjoy the occasional roast dinner. When I partake in a glass of wine, I do so in the knowledge that alcohol is the food that carries the highest risk for bowel and other cancers.