The Bill’s Ben Richards on ignoring the symptoms of his bowel cancer
British stage and television actor Ben Richards has spoken of his shock at being diagnosed with bowel cancer at just 39 years of age despite no family history of the disease and him having a healthy diet. Bowel cancer is more common in the over-65s with 72% of diagnoses occurring in this age group. Obesity, alcohol, smoking and a diet high in red or processed meats are also other risk factors for developing what is the now the third most common type of cancer in the UK. Ben, now 41, appeared in the ITV drama Footballers’ Wives back in 2004, playing the role of Bruno Milligan. He has since appeared in other television shows such as Holby City and The Bill, however has now returned to theatre work which he had been involved in prior to finding fame on TV. Young and slender Ben has never struggled with his weight and the diagnosis stunned him after he chose to ignore the symptoms he was experiencing, stating he was a ‘typical man’ and was reluctant to speak to his doctor about ‘that part’ of his body. The actor had noticed his bowel movements had altered and there was a small amount of blood in his stools. Ben assumed it was internal piles and the change in bowel movements was because he had just finished travelling around India. Never for a moment did he consider he was suffering from anything as potentially-deadly as bowel cancer. Ben, who has recently become ambassador for Bowel Cancer UK, says: “I was just a total bloke about the situation. Like most men I didn’t want to even think about going to a doctor and it wasn’t until my then wife Helen nagged me that I eventually saw my GP.” In January 2012, Ben finally decided to seek help and visited his GP, who subsequently urged Ben to immediately see a specialist upon hearing his symptoms. By luck, Ben was able to schedule an appointment to see a private doctor on the very same day and was then booked in for a colonoscopy. This is where a thin, flexible tube with a camera attached (a colonoscope) is used to investigate the entire bowel. Just one week later, Ben underwent his tests at the Harpenden Spire Private Hospital. Scans revealed a 6cm tumour in his bowel and he was given the news straight away that he had cancer. He says: “I couldn’t quite compute what the doctor had told me. It was terrifying and cancer had always been something that happened to other people, not me. I had no family history of the disease either, so it never occurred to me that symptoms I had mistaken for IBS and piles could be something so serious. Surgeons were forced to remove almost half my bowel which was incredibly painful. The whole combination of treatments was a shock to the system and to be honest I felt awful.” His recovery involved gruelling six-week cycles of chemotherapy and radiotherapy. After experiencing a few small complications along the way, Ben has fully recovered and currently in his fourth month of remission. Although he describes feeling ‘better than ever’, he has learned valuable lessons and is now more careful in regards to his health. “I have always eaten healthily but now I’m extra careful. I don’t eat red meat and wheat and I’ve given up beer entirely – much as I miss it – because I just don’t want to take the risk of the cancer returning.” As Ben highlighted, bowel cancer can be difficult to determine, with symptoms similar to less life-threatening conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome. If you experience unusual symptoms for longer than a few weeks, it is recommended you seek medical attention as soon as possible. Ben made a full recovery with a relatively earlier diagnosis, but persistent ignoring of symptoms can prove fatal. Symptoms include: Blood in your faeces, the appearance of mucus in the faeces, inexplicable weight loss, persistent abdominal pain lasting longer than two weeks, severe constipation or diarrhoea lasting longer than two weeks and tiredness as a result of becoming anaemic from microscopic bleeding from the bowel. If you have any of these symptoms, Medical Specialists Pharmacy advises that you see your GP immediately. In addition to the colonoscopy mentioned earlier, another test your GP may refer you to, is the ‘faecal occult bloods’ (FOBs) test. Here, many samples of your faeces are scanned for any possible microscopic amounts of blood lost from a tumour. If a diagnosis is made, a ‘Dukes’ staging’ is given to the cancer to determine how it is likely to progress or conclude which is the best course of treatment to go for the patient.