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I was diagnosed with bowel cancer at 47 - this isn't just an old man's disease

Victoria Lambert
Matthew Wiltshire has set up a website called Bowel Bloke to get men talking about bowel cancer - Jeff Gilbert

It’s one of those sunny Monday mornings when, truth be told, most of us would like to sneak a day off. But for Matthew Wiltshire, the opposite is true. 

“I’d love to be heading into work right now,” says Wiltshire, a 52-year-old IT sales director from Weybridge, Surrey. “I’m a work hard, play hard person. I miss the structure of the week.”

We’re sipping coffee in the light-drenched kitchen of the waterside home Wiltshire shares with wife Sophie, a 49-year-old hair stylist and their two sons, Oliver, 21 and Charles, 17. He looks tanned and well, after a month travelling in Nepal and Goa.

But no one should envy Wiltshire his lifestyle. “I’m not doing a bucket list,” he says. “I hate that phrase. But I do have a great big spreadsheet of things I’d like to do: birthdays, marriages, a screenplay to write…”  

Wiltshire was diagnosed with colo-rectal cancer four years ago at the unexpected age of 47. Although almost 18 out of 20 cases of bowel cancer in the UK are diagnosed in people over the age of 60, new research has found that the number of cases in the under 50s is increasing.

Rates of the disease are rising by 1.8 per cent a year among those under the age of 50 in the UK, while dropping by 1.2 per cent annually in older groups, according to the study of 21 western countries, published by the Lancet.

Experts, who say soaring levels of obesity and unhealthy lifestyles are to blame, want the age of screening to be lowered to 45.

Bowel cancer is the fourth most common cancer in the UK, according to Cancer Research UK with 41,700 new cases diagnosed every year. 

The most common risk factor is still age because cell DNA damage accumulates over time meaning most cases, but other known factors include smoking and drinking alcohol, eating processed meat and not enough fibre.

Wiltshire is aware that he is in the vanguard of this unhappy trend which brings new challenges for patients.

“When I first got diagnosed,” he explains, “I was just coping with the treatment and the disease. But over time, I wanted to talk to other people in my situation.”

He adds: “I wanted to talk about dealing with work issues and supporting my family but couldn’t find anyone in the same position.”

He adds: “It’s mostly women on forums too - I wanted to find or build a male community. To get men talking.”

As a result, while dealing with all the difficult decisions and emotions cancer patients manage every day, he has been detailing his life with cancer online. As Bowel Bloke, Wiltshire posts graphic and brutally candid videos on to Instagram and his eponymous website about operations and chemotherapy as well as images of holidays and his family. 

His website and YouTube channel, which went live last year, have now had 132,600 web hits.

Wiltshire’s experience with cancer began in April 2015 when he noticed blood in his stools. “I love my red wine and steak and thought at first, that was to blame. But the blood kept appearing so after a couple of days, I went to the GP.”

Using private healthcare, Wiltshire was referred to a specialist for further tests: an endoscopy and a colonoscopy.  “The surgeon told me at once that he had found a polyp which was malignant. I went home and said, ‘You’re not going to believe this Sophie, I’ve got cancer’.”

He admits he was still relaxed, having been told surgery would sort out the problem. “I was naïve in hindsight,” he says. 

The operation was carried out on May 21st (three weeks after discovering the blood); Wiltshire woke up in pain. The surgery seemed to have been successful with the tumour being removed along with 10 inches of colon. He had been given a stoma - an opening on the abdomen connected to his digestive system to allow waste to be diverted out of the body - but his bowel did not work for three weeks. 

“It was awful,” he says, “but at least the tumour was out and hadn’t spread at all and I didn’t need chemo.” 

Wiltshire took a typically bullish approach to his stoma bag. “It was horrible; I didn’t like cleaning it but I knew it would be reversed.” 

The family went on holiday to Portugal where Wiltshire was amused to see people’s reactions to his bag as he sunbathed on the beach. The stoma was reversed in August, much to his relief. And that could have been that.

But in October 2016, just after the one-year “all clear”, Wiltshire noticed an uncomfortable feeling in his bottom. “It was like an itch you can’t scratch.” His surgeon suggested it might be scar tissue forming but after three weeks, Wiltshire insisted on tests. 

“When I saw my surgeon afterwards,” he says, “he had his head in his hands. The cancer had recurred and spread in the pelvic area. The odds of it happening were no more than 20 per cent.” 

Wiltshire was referred to an oncologist at Royal Surrey County Hospital, Guildford, who outlined a chemotherapy and radiotherapy schedule designed to shrink the cancer enough for radical surgery.

Radiotherapy sessions were timed for daily doses over five weeks up until Christmas, combined with weekly infusions and daily tablets of chemotherapy.  The therapy made Wiltshire ill and his bowels to stop working again. 

His family rallied around, and scans showed the chemo was working. But then came more bad news.

“I was undergoing more tests for the surgeon when I was told that the cancer had come back in four places in my pelvis and that several spots had been picked up in my lungs too.”

He realised at once this was a game-changing moment. “Six weeks later I was told the areas in my lungs had grown. The operation was no longer even an option.”

Wiltshire began a new multi-drug chemotherapy regime, with a port created in his chest so that the drugs could be delivered at home, a cocktail which included antihistamines, painkillers and steroids as well. 

By autumn 2017, Wiltshire had developed a rash across his face and admits he “lost all sense of time and day. Plus the steroids make you feisty. There was lots of arguing at home. I was unbearable.”

The BBC's Middle East Editor Jeremy Bowen, 59 recently revealed he has been diagnosed with bowel cancer, but a new study has found a sharp rise in diagnoses among the under 50s Credit:  Rii Schroer

The chemo seemed to be working, and Wiltshire began hoping that surgery might still be possible, but then in February last year came another scan - conclusive in the worst way. “I was told that all the nodules in my lungs were back and had increased. That I should get my affairs in order. I couldn’t speak. It was so brutal.”

At this point, he says, “you lose all the hope, belief and optimism. It’s incurable and you’re going to die. It was horrific, having to talk to family. I was in tears. It still is unbearable.”

Wiltshire was helped by a support centre in Isleworth called the Mulberry Centre, where a Macmillan trained counsellor gave him psychological tools to cope. 

“You can only think about now, she told me. Don’t project too far. It sticks with me but trying to live that way is hard.”

Wiltshire started setting goals to eat more healthily and spend time making memories with his family and friends.  He has been on several chemo regimes and continues to be scanned for changes to the cancer. 

“I want to focus on healing,” he says. “That’s become my job.” The recent trip to India and Nepal was part of that. Wiltshire stayed in two monasteries trying to find some meaning to his existence and experience. “I have to believe that you can influence your outcome.”

Before having cancer, Wiltshire could never have imagined living his cancer in such a public way.  “I would have said I’m very private. You don’t want to be a victim or have people pity or feel sorry for you.”

But he is driven by a need to get other men talking. “Everything I do is in humour. I think it helps when you are struggling with emotions.

“I just want to make more people aware. I had early diagnosis and fast treatment but I’m in this position because of bad luck. That can happen to anyone.”