My mum will never meet her grandchildren - don't be ashamed to get tested

Elliot Coleman and mum Sue Coleman
-Credit: (Image: Cancer Research UK/Elliot Coleman)

A Leeds teacher whose mum died of bowel cancer before having the chance to see him become a dad has welcomed funding to improve screening uptake.

Elliot Coleman says the shame or embarrassment people may feel at the prospect of having their stool tested to prevent bowel cancer, “is not comparable” to the feeling of knowing that his mum will never get to meet his child.

The NHS says more than a quarter of people in Yorkshire and the Humber do not take up invitations for bowel cancer screening.

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To help combat this, Cancer Research UK has donated £282,525 towards the work of Professors Daryl O’Connor, Mark Conner and their team based at The University of Leeds together with a colleague, Professor Katie Robb, at the University of Glasgow. The new research will look at increasing the return of the screening kits as part of the NHS Bowel Cancer Screening Programme by attempting to increase motivation levels and linking screening to a deadline.

Elliot was left to raise his teenage siblings after their mum, Sue Coleman, died from bowel cancer. Sue had repeatedly seen her GP due to an overactive thyroid gland which was making her feel exhausted. However, it was only when she saw a different GP that an endoscopy was offered and the camera immediately revealed a tumour in her bowel.

Further tests showed Sue, who was aged 50, had stage 4 bowel cancer. She immediately shared the news with her eldest son Elliot, but wanted to come to terms with the diagnosis before telling her younger children, Henri and Chloe.

Sue, who lived with her family in Pool-in-Wharfedale, took an optimistic approach to treatment and was willing to undertake whatever was offered to ensure she could remain with her much loved children.

Sue Coleman
Sue Coleman -Credit:Cancer Research UK/Elliot Coleman

Sue received chemotherapy and radiotherapy in order to help battle the cancer. She also received surgery to her bottom, lung and pelvic region. As a result, she was left with a stoma and ileostomy bag, part of her lung was removed and she experienced reduced mobility to her right leg.

Despite enduring five years of relentless treatment, the cancer continually returned. It spread to multiple parts of Sue’s body and sadly became untreatable. In her final months, Sue was cared for at St Gemma’s Hospice, where she passed away surrounded by family and loved ones in 2022 aged 56.

Her son Elliot, aged 34, teaches at Leeds College of Building. He lives with his partner in Meanwood and they are expecting their first baby in December. He said: “I welcome absolutely anything which will encourage people to use the NHS FIT home kits.

“My mum was not offered screening as she wasn’t eligible due to her age. However, after watching her endure five years of emotional and physical pain along with the strain the family endured, and at times we felt helpless – I would strongly urge everyone who is eligible, to take the test and return it.

“The shame or embarrassment people may feel at the prospect of having their stool tested to prevent bowel cancer, is not comparable to the feeling of knowing that my mum will never meet my child and become a grandma, that she wasn’t there for my sister’s prom or there for my brother when he passed his GCSEs.”

Sue Coleman and her children Chloe and Henri -Credit:Cancer Research UK/Elliot Coleman
Sue Coleman and her children Chloe and Henri -Credit:Cancer Research UK/Elliot Coleman

In Scotland, bowel screening rates improved after letters were issued with a specific deadline for returning the FIT (Faecal Immunochemical Test) sample. Currently in England when letters are sent out with the test kit, there is no suggested date for returning it.

Prof O’Connor said: “In addition to increasing the uptake of screening, we also want to reach out to under-served communities and ethnically diverse communities who can be less likely to return the kits for lots of different reasons. There can be many factors why people don’t return the screening kits – embarrassment, shame or lack of time. We want to understand why and what we can do to improve the situation.”

Every year, around 3,800 people in Yorkshire and the Humber are diagnosed with bowel cancer.

Naser Turabi, director of evidence and implementation at Cancer Research UK, said: “Bowel cancer is the fourth most common cancer in the UK, taking more than 16,000 lives a year. Early detection is key in improving survival rates for the disease. Screening is designed to detect bowel cancer before any symptoms develop. Even if the kit does show something out of the ordinary, it doesn’t mean it will turn out to be cancer. But if it is cancer, catching it at an early stage means it is easier to treat successfully.”

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