Special honour for Wigan mum diagnosed with cancer after social media post by Dame Deborah James

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Dame Deborah James touched the lives of many people as she battled bowel cancer – and none more so than Wigan mum Gemma Crossley.

Known as Bowelbabe, Deborah was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2016 at the age of 35 and became a tireless campaigner and fund-raiser.

She shared her experiences with unflinching honesty and worked to tackle many taboos – including encouraging everyone to “check their poo”.

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Gemma Crossley will be the official starter for Race for Life at Haydock Park RacecourseGemma Crossley will be the official starter for Race for Life at Haydock Park Racecourse
Gemma Crossley will be the official starter for Race for Life at Haydock Park Racecourse

It was one of her posts on social media that prompted Gemma Crossley, a mum of two from Golborne, to see her GP to get her own symptoms checked.

That led to her discovering that she also had bowel cancer in December 2020.

Gemma, 41, said: “If it wasn’t for Debs, I’m not sure when I would’ve been diagnosed.

“I’d spent years with bowel issues, which I’d always put down to irritable bowel syndrome. I had never thought it was cancer. Then a post from Deb was a real red flag for me.

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Gemma Crossley with husband Andrew and children Jack and MiaGemma Crossley with husband Andrew and children Jack and Mia
Gemma Crossley with husband Andrew and children Jack and Mia

“So, I went back to the GP as the pain was getting worse and I had noticed some bleeding. It was then that they found a lump and I was referred straight away. I owe Debs so much for that post.

“It was an awful and isolating time for me going through it all during Covid. My husband Andrew couldn’t come to anything with me. He had to stay outside while I had chemo and he couldn’t visit during my stay in hospital for the surgery. I was all by myself, it was dreadful, but I’m alive.

Bowel cancer can affect anyone. Get to know what’s normal for you, and if you’re worried about changes, speak to your GP. I had stage three lower rectal cancer and I had no idea. So getting checked might just save your life.”

Gemma had radiotherapy at The Christie in Manchester for five weeks, followed by four rounds of chemotherapy and extensive surgery at Wigan Infirmary, which left her with a permanent colostomy bag.

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Gemma Crossley at the Race for Life in 2021Gemma Crossley at the Race for Life in 2021
Gemma Crossley at the Race for Life in 2021

By July 2021, doctors told Gemma there was no sign of cancer.

She was inspired to take part in Cancer Research UK’s Race for Life that autumn and she will return this summer – but this time, as a very special guest.

Gemma has been invited to sound the horn to start the event at Haydock Park Racecourse on Sunday, July 2, which will mark two years of her being clear of bowel cancer.

More than 1,000 people are set to take part in the 3k, 5k and 10k events, where Gemma will be cheering participants on.

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Gemma CrossleyGemma Crossley
Gemma Crossley

Gemma, who is mum to Jack, 16, and Mia, 15, said: “Race for Life is such a great cause.

“The money helps so many people. By contributing to the research that’s being done now, we can help improve the future. If people hadn’t donated to Race for Life in previous years, I might not have had the treatment that I had to save my life. By taking part, you can help the scientists develop more treatments and have fun at the same time.”

This year, people can sign up to Race for Life for Bowelbabe and take part in memory of Dame Deborah James.

In her final weeks, fuelled by her spirit of “rebellious hope” and passion to help others, Deborah worked to establish the Bowelbabe Fund for Cancer Research UK.

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When she died on June 28, 2022, the fund had raised nearly £7m and has now reached a staggering £11.3m.

All the money raised through Race for Life for Bowelbabe will go to the Bowelbabe Fund for Cancer Research UK, which supports projects and causes Deborah was passionate about, including funding cutting-edge research into early detection and personalised medicine, raising awareness of signs and symptoms, and tackling the stigmas around cancer. 

Dame Deborah JamesDame Deborah James
Dame Deborah James

Jemma Humphreys, Cancer Research UK’s spokesperson in the North West, said: “We are grateful to Gemma for her support. We’d love for as many people as possible across the region to join us during our 30th year of Race for Life. Sadly, cancer affects all of us in some way.  

 “We want to make sure that everyone can join the Race for Life movement. Our participants come from different backgrounds, with different stories, but with one thing in common – the determination to help beat cancer. Whether people are living with cancer, taking part in honour of or in memory of a loved one with cancer, or signing up to protect their own children’s future, everyone has a reason to Race for Life.  

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 “We’ve seen survival rates in the UK double in the last 40 years thanks to the tireless efforts of researchers, but this can only happen with the continued support of fund-raisers up and down the country. 

 “Together we can bring about a future free from the fear of cancer. So we’re asking people across the region: who will you race for?” 

Cancer Research UK’s Race for Life is a series of 3k, 5k, 10k, Pretty Muddy, and Pretty Muddy Kids events which raise millions of pounds every year to help beat cancer by funding crucial research.  

They raised more than £36,000, with organisers encouraging participants to pay in their sponsor money as soon as possible so it can be used to make a difference.

To enter, visit raceforlife.org.