Woman diagnosed with bowel cancer at 25 says Dame Deborah James was ‘beacon of hope’ amidst rising cases in the young

A WOMAN who thought nothing of her urinary tract infection (UTI) was later told she in fact had stage four cancer. 

Ellie Wilcock, 26, said Dame Deborah, dubbed the ‘Bowelbabe‘ for her work in raising awareness about the disease, provided a source of comfort and hope. 

Ellie Wilcock, 26PA Real Life

PA Real LifeEllie was told her insides looked like ‘chewing gum stuck to a carpet’ when she thought she just had a UTI[/caption]

The content manager, from Peterborough, said: “My mum and I went into a room with the doctor and he said I have cancer.

“I just went into shock – I kept asking him if he was joking.

“They said it was stage four and that it was in my bowel, and it had spread to my liver, peritoneum and ovaries.

“It was the last thing I expected, being so young.”

Ellie and her boyfriend, Rory Canning, 27, had just moved in together and were living their dream when their ordeal began in the new year of 2022. 

Ellie, who was 25 at the time, had “extreme pain” with what she thought was a UTI, but thought “nothing of it” because she has UTIs a couple of times a year.

After a week, nothing improved. But because there appeared to be no infection, but her inflammatory markers were ‘extremely high’, Ellie was referred for an ultrasound.

Ellie said: “When they did the ultrasound, they immediately saw something but they couldn’t tell me any more other than there was a 15cm mass in my lower abdomen.

“I was put on to the women’s health ward as they thought it may be an ovarian cyst.”

The following morning, Ellie was sedated to have emergency surgery to remove the cyst, but nothing had been taken out when she woke up.

Deborah, to me, was proof that you really can live with cancer

Ellie Wilcock

She said: “They did a biopsy instead and they suspected that I had pelvic inflammatory disease because when they opened me up my insides looked like chewing gum on a carpet – they could see a large tumour.”

Around a week later, in February 2022, Ellie got the biopsy results.

She was diagnosed with stage four bowel cancer which had spread to her liver, peritoneum and ovaries.

Fewer than one in ten people survive bowel cancer if it’s picked up at stage four.

Bowel cancer is more common in the over 50s. But more than 2,600 people under 50 are diagnosed with bowel cancer in the UK every year and the number is increasing, according to Bowel Cancer UK.

Ellie let herself have that evening to “let all of her emotions out” and she woke up the following day with a determined attitude.

She said: “I knew my life was never going to be the same so I just focused on the positives and the plan.”

She recalls how, in the midst of this confusion, Dame Deborah James was a beacon of hope.

After being diagnosed with stage four incurable bowel cancer in December 2016, Deborah started her blog, BowelBabe.

Just a few months later she started sharing her journey of living with incurable cancer in her Sun Online column, Things Cancer Made Me Say.

“I remember being in the midst of my treatment whilst following Deborah’s story,” Ellie said.

“It was scary and unfamiliar to me, filled with doctors, hospital gowns and a cocktail of tests and medication.’

“It was Deborah that made all of this ‘new world’ feel human. Deborah, to me, was proof that you really can live with cancer. 

“She was this beacon of hope who was truly empowering and inspiring, this positivity continues to shine with her legacy.”

The number of people under 50 diagnosed with bowel cancer has been going up for three decades. 

In the UK,there has been about a 50 per cent rise in these tumours in people aged 25 to 49 over this period, with similar trends in the US, Canada, Australia and several European countries.

There has been much speculation among experts about the cause, with key suspects being aspects of the modern diet – such as ultra processed food, red meat, and a lack of fibre. Antibiotics and pollution have also been raised as possible causes.

Ellie was told her cancer was inoperable due to the severity, and she’d need to have chemotherapy first.

While at home waiting to have chemotherapy, Ellie got “really poorly” and was vomiting regularly.

She’d had an ileostomy stoma fitted, allowing her stool to come out of an opening on her stomach, as the tumour was partially obstructing her large bowel. 

Ellie went back into A&E and was put on a feeding tube as she went from around 11 stone to eight stone in a few months.

“I was so skinny, I was all skin and bone, and they put me in a wheelchair,” she said.

“My stomach completely ballooned – I looked like I was eight months pregnant.”

Ellie had some more scans and her tumour had grown to be “bigger than a watermelon”.

She started emergency chemotherapy as soon as possible, and after her first round, she was eating again.

She said: “I was in hospital for five weeks in total and I began to improve slowly – I could eat more and more, and my blood results were improving.

“The chemo actually made me stronger rather than weaker.”

Ellie’s oncologist was determined to operate, so she increased her chemotherapy strength.

She said: “Over the course of the next around 10 months, I had 15 rounds of chemotherapy, and it was very tough, but I knew we had a plan, so it was worth it.

“Eventually, the tumour got down to about 10cm and my ‘pregnancy bump’ went flat.”

Ellie was given a surgery that is hard to come by, with only a few surgeons able to perform it.

On December 13 2022, over a 10-hour surgery, she had her primary tumour and entire reproductive system removed, including the ovaries and womb.

She also had parts of her large bowel removed, as well as the omentum and peritoneum – tissues and membranes that line the abdominal area. Her stoma was also reversed.

Heated chemotherapy was then washed through Ellie’s abdomen – a procedure called HIPEC – before she was transferred to intensive care.

In January 2023, she also had a liver ablation, which involved having “microwaves blasted” into her liver.

She said: “After that, they couldn’t see any more cancer with the human eye, but I had another eight cycles of tablet chemotherapy just in case.

“I finished that round this week, in August, and have had a clear MRI and CT scans since.

“I now have no evidence of disease – I just can’t believe it. It felt miraculous.”


Ellie will now be monitored for any signs of cancer for the next five years.

Looking back on her experience, Ellie said: “I count my lucky stars every day.

“My family, my boyfriend, my friends, the NHS and Macmillan were just amazing, and I’m so thankful that I followed my gut.

“This all taught me that you’re never too young to have cancer and to appreciate life.”

What are the first symptoms of bowel cancer?

Being aware of the signs and symptoms of bowel cancer, spotting any changes to your normal and going to your doctor is vital.

If you notice any of the signs, don’t be embarrassed – chances are your GP has heard it all before.

The five red-flag symptoms of bowel cancer include:

Bleeding from the back passage, or blood in your poo
A change in your normal toilet habits – going more frequently for example
Pain or a lump in your tummy
Extreme tiredness
Losing weight

Tumours in the bowel typically bleed, which can cause a shortage of red blood cells, known as anaemia. It can cause tiredness and sometimes breathlessness.

In some cases bowel cancer can block the bowel, this is known as a bowel obstruction.

Other signs of bowel cancer include:

Gripping pains in the abdomen
Feeling bloated
Constipation and being unable to pass wind
Being sick
Feeling like you need to strain – like doing a number two – but after you’ve been to the loo

The risk factors for bowel cancer are:

You’re aged over 50
You have a strong family history of the disease
A history of non-cancerous growths, known as polyps, in your bowel
Long-term inflammatory bowel disease, such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis
Type 2 diabetes
An unhealthy lifestyle – you smoke, are overweight or obese and do not get enough exercise

Ellie had invasive surgery and chemotherapy for her stage 4 bowel cancerPA Real Life

PA Real LifeEllie had just moved in with her boyfriend, Rory, months prior to her diagnosis[/caption]

PA Real LifeThe content manager is now cancer-free and will be monitored[/caption]

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