“I’m a bowel cancer survivor: I want to be there for others like Deborah James was”

Sarah Laws shares her inspiring story of being diagnosed with bowel cancer and how she wants to help others like the “bowelbabe” Deborah James.

As I sat down to chat to bowel cancer survivor Sarah Laws, 58, from Essex, I was immediately struck by her upbeat attitude and contagious energy. She was bursting to tell me about the one woman she looked up to and could relate to during her journey – the late Dame Deborah James. “She was like my spiritual twin. I’m exactly like she was. 

“She was an inspiration to me. I could see the sadness in her eyes, but even though she had down days, she still managed to don the tutu and lippy, and dance.” 

Sarah Laws, who survived bowel cancer and says Deborah James was an inspiration to her.Credit: Sarah Laws
Laws says that Deborah James was an inspiration to her as she battled bowel cancer.

James’s battle with bowel cancer 

James was diagnosed with incurable stage three bowel cancer, aged 35, in 2016. She went on to be a campaigner to raise awareness for bowel cancer and set up the Bowelbabe fund for Cancer Research UK in May 2022. James sadly died in the following month. A year on from her death and her Bowelbabe fund has reached over £11 million.

Laws remembers well the day James died. “I was in London filming for Bowel Research UK’s ‘Have You Got The Guts?’ campaign [which encourages people to feel more comfortable talking about bowel cancer],” says Laws. “It was a bittersweet day because it was a sad end to a day that had been so much fun. 

“I can’t believe it has been a year since she died. I always thought she would overcome it. It’s quite poignant.” 

Struggling to get help

Rewind back to 2017 and, similarly to James, Laws was struggling with poor gut health. Having overcome an eating disorder when she was younger, she was doing a week-long neurolinguistic programming course in the hope of helping others going through the same thing. “All the way through the course, I was up and down to the toilet, and I started to feel really tired,” says Laws. “That’s when I decided to go to the doctors.”  

“Dame Deborah James was an inspiration to me.”

However, getting a diagnosis for these issues wasn’t easy. “It was impossible to see a permanent GP at my practice as they had a lot of locum doctors at the time,” says Laws. “So each time I went to see a different doctor and they would say something different. I used to wake up at night with really excruciating pains in my backside. One of the doctors said it was piles. 

“I was back and forth, like a yo-yo, to the GP for 18 months.” 

During this time, they took stool samples, which came back negative. However, she later found out they had been testing for the wrong thing and, like James, she was told it was irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). 

“In June 2019, I started my dream job as an account manager. But sometimes in the morning, it took me several attempts to get out the door because I kept needing the toilet. Then I got a verbal warning for being late.”  

At that time, Laws didn’t have a medical condition that could explain things to her employer. She felt the stress building because of this, and the stress made her issues worse. Yet she still didn’t think there was anything serious to worry about.  

She says: “I didn’t think there was anything untoward, as I wasn’t losing any weight. In fact, I was putting it on; I looked about six months pregnant, and I couldn’t get into any of my clothes. And there wasn’t a particular food that triggered my stomach issues. Sometimes I starved myself for days and I still had the same problem.” 

Bowel cancer survivor Sarah Laws standing by a motorbike.Credit: Sarah Laws
Laws buys a new motorbike for each year that she is in remission.

A cancer diagnosis

Four weeks after she received the verbal warning, Laws began to feel very tired and unwell, and she noticed blood in her poo. One day, in the shower, she spotted a bulge in her inner thigh. This is the moment she knew something was wrong. “Eventually I became so ill that I had to get a second opinion,” she says. 

After begging the receptionist at her doctor’s surgery to see the permanent GP, she finally managed to get an appointment. The GP fast-tracked Laws for a colonoscopy, which she had three days later. 

Up until this point, doctors had not given Laws an internal examination. “If they had have done, they would have found a three-and-a-half-inch tumour just inside my rectum,” she adds. The bulge that she’d noticed on her thigh was in fact the tumour. 

Laws then had CT and MRI scans and when she was in the waiting room to receive the results, she had a feeling it was bad news. “On September 16 2019 I was told I had bowel cancer.” She was 54. She felt a mixture of relief about finally having a diagnosis, and devastation over the news, particularly because she had lost her dad to lung cancer. Understandably, the news had a huge impact on her husband and in particular, her two daughters aged 28 and 29. “Losing their grandad to cancer massively affected them and I think they struggled to come to terms with hearing my diagnosis on top.” Even so, Laws was keen to move forward with the next step.

A month later, she started radiotherapy and chemotherapy. “Every day for six weeks, I made a three-hour round trip to the hospital for treatment. 

“I was still working, as I couldn’t have sick pay, so I had to take the time out of my annual leave.” 

Three months after the treatment ended, Laws received some good news – her tumour was “as flat as a pancake”. However, she still needed to have it removed. 

It’s not over yet

In March 2020, Laws demonstrated her bravery by becoming one of the first people to have robotic artificial intelligence (AI) surgery – a procedure performed by mechanical limbs, controlled by the surgeon – on her stomach. She admits being a bit nervous at the time. “I had visions of this robot running around the hospital holding bits of intestine,” she jokes. But she went through with the surgery, which took only around two and a half hours. “I had about two feet of my colon and half of my rectum removed,” Laws says. 

As a result, she woke up with a temporary stoma. Laws found adjusting to and managing her colostomy bag to be particularly challenging. But she was grateful her stoma was keeping her alive and didn’t let that dampen her sense of humour. “I named it Moaning Myrtle because it made all sorts of noises.” 

Sarah Laws, who battled bowel cancer, with her friend.Credit: Sarah Laws
Communicating with and helping people helps Laws get through difficult days.

Just three days after her operation, the whole country went into lockdown. With her husband still able to go out to work, suddenly Laws, now on sick leave, was faced with being at home by herself, while waiting six months for a stoma reversal (a procedure that involves re-joining the two healthy ends of the bowel and closing the temporary stoma). She could have easily moped about, but instead put her time and energy into something positive. “I love to talk so I volunteered with the NHS to talk to patients over the phone, and I did three mental health first aid courses as well.  

“This kept me sane. If I hadn’t had those activities, I’d probably be in a different place now.” 

At the beginning of 2021, Laws made the difficult decision to leave her dream job. She had begun to find the pressure of constantly supplying sickness certificates, and being assessed to see if she was fit for work, too much. In her time off, she landscaped her garden, which really boosted her mental wellbeing. She used a lot of her savings, so, after a year, got a job at a solicitor’s firm.  

Grabbing life with both hands

In terms of her own journey, Laws, has been in remission for three years. She has regular tests and those, along with the most recent, have shown up as all clear. And her love for motorbikes helps her celebrate this. “Every year I’m clear, I buy a bike, so I have three now,” she laughs.  

“I feel incredibly fortunate that I’m still alive.”

Life isn’t always peachy as she contends with daily life stresses and the side effects that she’s been left with after surgery. “I have lower anterior resection syndrome (Lars), meaning I don’t have the ability to hold loose stools easily. I must be near a toilet. And there’s quite a few occasions where I haven’t made it. My symptoms are getting better; as time goes on, I’m having less mishaps.” Despite this, Laws’ journey has changed her perspective and direction in life. “Considering the size of the tumour and the treatment that I had, I feel incredibly fortunate that I’m still alive. 

“I’m also a lot more relaxed than I used to be.” It’s clear she is grabbing life with both hands. Last year, Laws completed a 13,000-foot parachute jump to raise funds for her local Helena Rollason Cancer Charity centre. “I’ll probably find something else daredevilish to do again soon,” she adds. 

Now working as a payroll manager at an accountancy firm, she is feeling hopeful about the future. “I’ve recently qualified as an Indian head and aromatherapy masseur,” she continues. “I’m also going to be starting a new massage course, called cancer touch therapy, specifically for cancer patients.” 

Bowel cancer survivor Sarah Laws doing a parachute jump for charity.Credit: Sarah Laws
Laws is making every minute count and recently did a 13,000-foot parachute jump.

Laws is also turning her dreams into reality. “I’m planning to move from Essex to Cornwall and set up a bed and breakfast for bikers. I also hope to host vegan-themed weekends and weekends aimed at supporting women’s health and those going through the menopause. 

“People can visit and get some respite from the woes in the world. That’s my goal in life. I don’t want to be rich or have a big house. As long as I can help people, I’ll feel quite blessed.” 

Helping others keeps Laws going even on her down days. She has some advice about talking for those going through bowel cancer treatment or in similar situations. “Social media is a useful tool for this,” she says. She explains that she joined a social media group for people with a stoma when she had one, and, while she no longer has a stoma, she still contributes to it and chats to people. “It can help you to feel less isolated,” Laws adds. 

“I want to be a Dame Deborah disciple. I’m there to give knowledge and my experience to others. Then if they come across somebody with the same problem, they can pass on that knowledge to another person. It spreads the word.” 

In Deborah James’ final message to her fans before she died, she said we should “find a life worth enjoying; take risks; love deeply; have no regrets; and always, always have rebellious hope. And finally, check your poo – it could just save your life”. 

Laws has found the same kindness and zest for life that James had, she’s just lucky enough to live more of it. Laws says: “I’m going to make my last breath count.” 

Bowel cancer signs to look out for 

The No Butts campaign – which was led by James, alongside ITV’s Lorraine Kelly – details symptoms to look out for that could be signs of bowel cancer. These may include: 

  • Blood in your poo or from your bottom 
  • Unexplained weight loss 
  • Feeling tired for no reason 
  • Bloating 
  • Tummy pain 
  • Changes in bowel habits. For example, having softer poo, diarrhoea or constipation that is not usual for you, needing to poo more or less often than usual, feeling like you need to poo even though you’ve just been 

If you notice any of these or are concerned about changes in your bowel habits, speak to a health professional or your GP. You can also call Macmillan Cancer Support’s helpline on 0808 808 0000 or Cancer Research UK’s cancer nurses on 080 8800 4040 for advice and support. Check their websites for phone line opening hours. 

Gemma Harris

Written by Gemma Harris she/her

Updated:

Gemma Harris has been a journalist for over seven years and is a self-confessed health and wellbeing enthusiast, which led her to specialise in health journalism. During her career, she has worked with top editors in the industry and taken on multiple high-discipline fitness challenges for certain outlets. She is particularly passionate about nutrition; after being diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome in 2016, she discovered her fascination for gut health and founded thegutchoice.com – a dedicated space for providing a hopeful outcome for people with gut issues. Gemma’s core aim is to help others through her writing.

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