‘Our embarrassment is killing us’: opera singer Claire Rutter reveals her brush with bowel cancer

Claire Rutter says she thought ‘I don’t want to bother my doctor with this – it’s probably stress or poor diet' 

Claire Rutter says she thought ‘I don’t want to bother my doctor with this – it’s probably stress or poor diet’  CREDIT:  ANTHONY UPTON/THE TELEGRAPH

The life of a successful opera singer can be hectic: many months of the year are spent travelling, and as for keeping a nine-to-five working life and regular mealtimes, it is naturally out of the question. So when Claire Rutter, a critically acclaimed soprano, first noticed some unusual stomach symptoms, she was quick to attribute them to her erratic schedule.

The symptoms, moreover, were of a nature that few feel comfortable discussing: she was passing a small amount of blood when she visited the toilet, accompanied by increasingly frequent bouts of diarrhoea and constipation. Preoccupied with her job, in any case, she brushed them off without much thought.

“I was very busy with work and thought: ‘I don’t want to bother my doctor with this – it’s probably stress or poor diet,” she says when we meet at her home on the scenic rural outskirts of Winchester. “If I’m on tour, it’s not always easy to find really healthy foods to eat. You eat in a rush, you eat late at night, so the lifestyle was such that I was blaming my work for my condition.”

But the symptoms persisted and became more regular and, by the autumn of 2016, she was suffering abdominal pains and stomach upsets whenever she ate anything other than very simple foods. After some two years spent ignoring these signs, she finally decided it was time to see a doctor, whereupon she was initially diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and possible haemorrhoids.

IBS seemed to make sense,” she says. “So I tried [a diet] for a couple of months and it made no difference at all. I was still quite unwell. I then started to get really poorly, and was having more bouts every day. Every day I was feeling quite ill and tired and run down and was passing blood.”

'It could have been so much worse for me if I hadn’t pushed for the colonoscopy,' says Claire Rutter
‘It could have been so much worse for me if I hadn’t pushed for the colonoscopy,’ says Claire Rutter CREDIT:  ANTHONY UPTON/THE TELEGRAPH

A few months later, she returned to her GP surgery. “I said, ‘My aunt recently died of bowel cancer, aged 90, and I’m worried I’m presenting with the same symptoms. How will I know if it’s bowel cancer or hemorrhoids or IBS?’”

It was July 2017, and this time a locum at the practice dispatched her for a colonoscopy straight away.

“That’s when they found the tumour,” says Rutter, who at 49 is young for a colorectal cancer case. “By this time it was quite large, and the colorectal specialist was quite surprised the doctor hadn’t sent me for a colonoscopy earlier, knowing my family history.”

She’d been totally unprepared for the result of the procedure, however, and learning the true cause of her symptoms left her stunned. “I’d honestly thought I was wasting people’s time. When I went along for the colonoscopy I was apologising because I thought: ‘I’m absolutely fine, there’s nothing there, it’s just stomach upsets, it’s stress.’ I was totally shocked, I absolutely broke down, when I was told it was a tumour. I couldn’t believe it. I just felt I was in some sort of parallel universe.”

The doctors performed a biopsy and in mid-September she was told the tumour was benign but could change. The consultant told her he would like to remove it as soon as possible, but Rutter had other plans.

“I said: ‘Oh, but I’m off to Iceland next week to sing Tosca for two months!’”

She admits she was “probably completely mad to do this”, but something else had occurred while she was awaiting the biopsy results that influenced her decision to prioritise her work at this time.

“My husband [opera singer Stephen Gadd] asked for a divorce. So first of all I knew I’d have to go through all this on my own, or with family and friends’ support but not my life partner, but also it was at a time when I was so upset – devastated is an understatement; we’d been married for 21 years – I wanted to carry on working because I felt I needed it for my self-esteem,” she says.

Lord Lansley has called on the government to improve NHS screening for bowel cancer
Lord Lansley has called on the government to improve NHS screening for bowel cancer CREDIT: HEATHCLIFF O’MALLEY/THE TELEGRAPH

So she asked the consultant what would happen if she delayed the operation for a couple of months while she was away. “He said: ‘It will continue growing and, naturally, I would like to take it out as soon as possible, but ultimately it’s your choice. I think you’ll be ok.’”

And so she decided to take the risk, and was booked in for surgery at the Royal Hampshire County Hospital in late November. Not wishing to burden her 21-year-old son and 19-year-old daughter with worry, she told no one the true reason for the operation.

“At this stage, I thought: ‘It’s benign, it’s not going to kill me,’” she says. “I don’t regret waiting, but I know it was a gamble.” And indeed it was: by the time the surgeons removed the tumour and examined it, they found the cells had started to change and were showing “a minute amount of cancerous growth”.

“I was very shocked,” says Rutter, who knows she was lucky, nonetheless: the medics managed to remove it in its entirety and believed it to have been contained. She is now “feeling 100 per cent – better than I have done in years”, has thrown herself back into her work (she is currently considering a stint in the West End to focus on her acting), and has been left with no side-effects. But her experience has left her determined to warn others against ignoring symptoms as she did, or being too embarrassed to discuss them.

“Our embarrassment is killing us,” she says, firmly. “It could have been so much worse for me if I hadn’t pushed for the colonoscopy.”

 George Alagiah will undergo medical treatment for cancer, after the disease returned
 George Alagiah will undergo medical treatment for cancer, after the disease returned CREDIT:  JEFF OVERS/BBC/ PA

It could also have been a very different outcome had she not overcome her embarrassment: when she first plucked up the courage to see her GP, she still prevaricated during the appointment, spending the bulk of it discussing a problem with her foot and only mentioning, as if as an afterthought, the bowel-related symptoms she’d been experiencing.

“Bowel or colorectal cancer is a very unglamorous cancer, and people don’t like to talk about it,” she says. But talk about it we must. Bowel cancer causes 16,000 deaths a year in the UK, making it the second biggest cancer killer in this country. Yet up to 95 per cent of cases of the disease could be treated with no complications if diagnosed early.

Clearly, there is some way to go: a recent survey of 1,000 people conducted by Ramsay Health Care UK to mark Bowel Cancer Awareness Month found that only 22 per cent would visit their doctor the first time they noticed blood in their stools.

Lord Lansley, the former Conservative health secretary, has meanwhile called on the government to improve NHS screening for the disease, for which he himself is being treated. Writing in the Telegraph earlier this month, he said he was lucky his GP was “perceptive enough to refer me to the hospital. Lucky, that the investigation showed Stage 3 tumours with no spread to my liver.”

George Alagiah has been less lucky: the BBC newsreader was first diagnosed with the disease in 2014 and it was later found to have spread to his liver and lymph nodes. Although cleared the following year, in January he announced the cancer had returned and he is undergoing further treatment.

Bowel cancer symptoms are common, and most people who experience them do not have cancer. But, says Rutter, it’s important to get them checked out. She has chosen to speak openly about her own brush with the disease in the hope it will raise awareness in others.

“I just want people to heed the warning signs and not ignore them,” she says. “People think they’re bothering their doctor, they think it’s nothing, and actually anything that goes on for weeks or months, any stomach upsets, stomach pains that you can’t attribute to diet, you need to get it sorted.”

• Claire Rutter will appear in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera at Grange Park Opera (June 9-July 5). Details: 01962 737373, grangeparkopera.co.uk 


Source & Copyright : The Daily Telegraph

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