Health: Cultivating a beard in aid of Beating Bowel Cancer

ON A MISSION: Matthew Wright prepares to grow beard to raise awareness of bowel cancer which killed his grandfather and father.
ON A MISSION: Matthew Wright prepares to grow beard to raise awareness of bowel cancer which killed his grandfather and father.
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The Wright Stuff host matthew wright has a family history of bowel cancer and so wants to raise awareness of the disease. Kate Whiting reports.

Compared to surviving without his electric razor in the jungle on last year’s I’m A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here!, you’d think growing a beard under normal conditions would be a doddle for Matthew Wright.

But the erstwhile clean-shaven host of Channel 5’s The Wright Stuff is not convinced. “I’m not sure I like looking like my face needs a good wash,” he admitted to viewers of his popular morning show, just one week in to Decembeard.

Vanity aside, Wright’s gradually developing salt ‘n’ pepper facial hair is raising well-needed awareness and funds for Beating Bowel Cancer.

It’s the UK’s second biggest cancer killer and affects both women as well as men, but as Wright knows only too well, it’s often men who are too embarrassed to go and see the doctor about symptoms including blood in their stools or strange bowel movements.

Both his granddad and his dad died of the disease and he’s been on a mission since his father’s death, some 20 years ago, to make sure “nobody dies from bowel cancer ever again”.

Wright’s grandfather had contracted bowel cancer originally in his 20s, but lived on into his 60s, whereas when Wright’s dad Jonathan was diagnosed, it was already too late and he died aged just 56.

“When my dad actually went to the doctor, he was in some pain and had blood coming out in his poo and the doctor prescribed him peppermint, because he said it was irritable bowel syndrome. He said, ‘Suck a few peppermints and you’ll be fine’.

“And when they cut him open for his operation after going for a second opinion at another practice, they found this tumour the size of a grapefruit. Now I can’t help but wonder, had the first doctor said, ‘Oh bloody hell, bowel cancer’s in the family, we need to get you checked out’, whether he might still be here today.

“So there’s a big question mark there - doctors can’t be perfect, but we as patients need to be more switched on, ask more questions, don’t leave the doctors without feeling you’ve been properly diagnosed, properly spoken to.”

Until about six years ago, Wright was having colonoscopies every couple of years and fully expecting to get bowel cancer too, due to a rare hereditary condition called Lynch Syndrome.

“It’s a couple of dodgy genes, which are found to have a very strong incidence in bowel cancer,” Wright explains. “These dodgy genes are very prevalent in my family and they increase your chances of getting cancer to 80-85%. When I helped raise money for a major research unit in West London, I used to joke, ‘I’m not doing this for the greater good, I’m doing this for myself’.”

Wright was screened for Lynch Syndrome and, in 2008, found out he didn’t have the “dodgy genes”.

“I was in with the bank manager and thought I better answer this because it’s the hospital and I was on cloud nine, thinking no more horrible colonoscopies, good life chances, and just as I was about to go, the lady who called me said, ‘Just so you know, the next person I’m going to call is a young woman in her 20s and I have to tell her that she does have [Lynch syndrome] and I just want you to bear that in mind because I know you do a lot of fundraising.”

Wright, who has a miniature schnauzer and spends his free time fishing in the Welsh valleys, admits since finding out his chances of getting cancer are back down to the average, his lifestyle’s not been quite as healthy as when he thought he was a ticking time bomb.

“One of the professors I met along the way told me if I ate green bananas and never ate meat again, I probably wouldn’t get bowel cancer at all, even with Lynch Syndrome. After 11 years of being a vegetarian, I’ve never felt so healthy as when I started eating red meat again - the surge of energy!

He feels “blessed” knowing he doesn’t have Lynch Syndrome but is still keen to point out to people when he’s fundraising that there is a one in three chance they’ll get some form of cancer.

Wright says he’s constantly surprised by how much British people still sweep important issues under the carpet, rather than face them.

“When I do the show, we talk a lot about family and social sexual issues and I’m always amazed by the number of parents who 1. object to teachers telling their kids about sex and 2. don’t want to talk to their own kids about sex. You think, ‘If they’re not prepared to talk to their children about something as basic as that, then God help them when it comes to medical issues’.

“We are particularly funny about our backsides - there’s lots of toilet humour covering up the fact we’re all terrified about talking about our toilet organs.”

And while he’s “terrified” by the number of women he meets who think only men get bowel cancer, he believes fear and the male ego are to blame for men trying to be ‘Mr Invincible’.

“A lot of the male ego is based around appearing to be strong. But going to the doctor can be a very humbling experience when you find out you’re not as strong as you thought. Having a diagnosis of cancer isn’t easy for anybody, but men don’t like going to the doctors for anything. There is a temptation to over-dramatise the possibilities - it all comes down to fear.”

For more information about Decembeard, visit www.decembeard.org

To donate to Matthew Wright’s fundraising efforts, visit his Just Giving page at www.justgiving.com/Matthew-Wright-off-the-telly or donate £5 by texting MATT50 to 70070