Julie Walters recalls the severe symptoms of ‘shock’ cancer

Julie Walters discusses her cancer recovery with Lorraine Kelly

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Spotted back in June of this year, Walters, 72, had been filming for her first major TV role in numerous years. The project that brought the beloved Dame out of retirement is Truelove, which tells the story of a group of friends who reunite at a funeral and agree that if one of them falls ill they will engineer their death. “I had basically withdrawn from acting… but then I read Truelove,” Walters said. “I was bowled over by the writing – the dark humour, the love story and thriller element set against a backdrop of what happens to us all as we approach our later years.”

What made Walters draw back from acting in the first place was a shock bowel cancer diagnosis back in 2018, which she revealed when speaking to prominent journalist Victoria Derbyshire.

After suffering from “slight discomfort” which quickly developed into severe stomach pain, heartburn and vomiting, Walters consulted her GP, who found that she had an abnormality within her intestine.

Reacting to the “shock” diagnosis, Walters recalled that it was “all systems go” to have it treated, and cure her of the life-threatening condition that kills more than 16,000 people every year in the UK.

In amongst the panic of treating the condition, Walters felt a sense of relief that she would be able to walk away from acting.

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“I don’t want to work again,” she said at the time. “The oncologist said to me, ‘What do you think has caused the cancer?’ And the first thing that came to my mind was acting.

“Acting caused it, because of the way I approach it — I have to be totally in it. It’s very stressful. You’re being judged. It’s a stressful job and I don’t sleep when I’m working. It’s not good for me.

“Part of me was going, ‘Oh my God! I’ve got cancer! Oh my God!’ And I’m dealing with the shock of that, and it’s all systems go to have it treated. But there was also an element of going, ‘I don’t have to do any more work. I can actually get off this treadmill.’

“Because I had been working really hard and it seemed like a big excuse not to do anything. Cancer trumps everything. So there was a huge relief in it, which is strange. But I needed something to stop me.”

Fortunately, Walters received treatment in the form of chemotherapy and was given the all clear from doctors, but her decision to step away from acting remained the same, she needed a break.

Walters was diagnosed with stage three bowel cancer – meaning that the disease had spread to nearby lymph nodes but had not affected any other body parts. Doctors found two large tumours in her large intestine, the primary cause of her symptoms.

Bowel Cancer UK, a leading charity, explains that noticing symptoms of bowel cancer is critical in getting the condition diagnosed and treated as early as possible. As it states on their website “knowing the symptoms of bowel cancer could save your life”.

These critical symptoms can include:

  • Bleeding from your bottom and/or blood in your poo
  • A persistent and unexplained change in bowel habit
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Extreme tiredness for no obvious reason
  • A pain or lump in your tummy.

Similar to Walters, who reported suffering from stomach pain, heartburn and vomiting, symptoms can differ from person to person. In some cases symptoms may not be caused by cancer, as other health conditions can cause similar symptoms. However, acting on symptoms, no matter what the cause, is important.

One way in which individuals may be able to describe symptoms to their doctor is to keep track of their symptoms using a diary. Bowel Cancer UK suggests that doing this will provide a good indication to the doctor whether they need further tests or not.

Specific changes in bowel habits to note include:

  • Looser poo
  • Needing a poo more often
  • Feeling as though you do not empty your bowels
  • Bright red or dark red blood from your bottom.

Sometimes, a tumour can block the bowel, causing sudden strong pains in the stomach area, bloating and feeling or being sick. At this stage individuals may be unable to empty their bowels or pass wind. This is called a bowel obstruction.

Walters soon had an operation to remove 30cm of her lower intestine, followed by chemotherapy – the most common treatments typically used for the condition.

Other potential treatment methods include radiotherapy and targeted therapies, the latter which is a newer group of medicines that increases the effectiveness of chemotherapy and prevents the cancer spreading.

For individuals who have had bowel cancer, hospitals often offer support services, with healthcare teams offering regular follow-up appointments to check how you are coping both physically and emotionally.

In Walters’ case, she told Derbyshire that after her surgery “everything is fine,” and now there is the star’s much anticipated return to acting.

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