Dame Julie Walters has revealed she has been given the all-clear, 18 months after being diagnosed with stage three bowel cancer.
And the actress, 69, has said she had the disease when she visited her late best friend Victoria Wood in hospital for the last time in 2016.
Victoria died two years before Julie’s diagnosis from an undiagnosed type of cancer.
Talking to Victoria Derbyshire on Thursday, Julie said: ‘I thought of her and how frightened she must have been because at least I could have an operation.
Diagnosis: Dame Julie Walters revealed she had stage three bowel cancer – but has now been given the all clear following chemotherapy
I thought about how frightened she’d have been: The experience has led the star to reflect on her close friend Victoria Wood’s terminal cancer diagnosis (pictured in Dinnerladies in 1999)
‘They couldn’t operate… and so I did think about that but the other thing I thought was, God, the last time I saw her, was in the hospital sitting by the bed… and I had it at the same time, yeah.’
Julie said: ‘I thought of her loads and how frightened she would have been. They couldn’t operate on her cancer. The last time I saw her in her hospital bed, I had it at the same time.
‘[If she had known I had it] it would have given her hope. It’s comforting [to speak to other people who are going through the same thing.]’
The Mamma Mia star said she thought doctors must have been mistaken when she first heard the news.
Brave: She told Victoria Derbyshire (right) she was diagnosed just 18 months ago after two primary tumours were discovered in her large intestine – Derbyshire herself beat breast cancer in 2016
Dame Julie said she had visited the doctor with indigestion and ‘slight discomfort’ a year earlier but later came back suffering with stomach pain, heartburn and vomiting but she didn’t have blood in her stools, which can be a common symptom.
Julie said: ‘I had some symptoms and not the others. My discomfort was really slight. Just go and make sure you get checked.’
Explaining that people shouldn’t feel embarrassed to be checked, she said: ‘Bottoms are part of your digestive system. Doctors are used to bottoms, they’ve got one themselves.’
Julie herself underwent a CT scan after being referred to a gastric surgeon and, while she was on set filming her upcoming film The Secret Garden, received a phone call asking her to see the specialist who told her it might be cancer.
‘I was still thinking, ‘That’s ridiculous, he must have made a mistake’. I couldn’t believe it,’ Dame Julie told Derbyshire who has documented her own recovery from cancer..
She remembers telling her husband Grant Roffey. ‘I’ll never forget his face. Tears came into his eyes,’ Dame Julie said.
Symptoms: Dame Julie, 69, said she had visited the doctor with indigestion and ‘slight discomfort’ a year earlier but later came back suffering with stomach pain and vomiting
The actress said she always had hope she’d make a full recovery after an optimistic prognosis from doctors, who said ‘we can fix this.’
‘If you catch it early, bowel cancer is the best type of cancer you can have.’
But while waiting for surgery she thought: ‘Well, I may not come round from the anaesthetic.’
Dame Julie explained she had ’30cm taken out of my colon’ in hospital and felt ‘absolutely marvellous’ after coming round from anaesthetic and still feeling its effects.
She had a biopsy and colonoscopy, which included a camera up the bottom.
Julie said: ‘I wasn’t looking forward to it but they gave me Pethidine and a sedative. I don’t remember much about it.
‘When I came round, I felt absolutely – it was obviously the anaesthetic, think there was a bit of heroin in it – I felt absolutely marvellous. I was really happy and ringing everyone.
Marriage: She remembers telling her husband Grant Roffey. ‘I’ll never forget his face’ as she spoke about his tears
‘I said to the night nurse, “Is Love Island on?” – because we were talking about it – and we watched it together.
‘It was only a couple of days later I thought, I feel exhausted, and a bit low actually.’
She later had chemotherapy despite initially thinking that she wouldn’t and said: ‘I will never forget taking the first lot – my hand was shaking. I felt like I was killing myself.’
Explaining it had not caused hair loss, she told Derbyshire she was now doing ‘really well’, she said: ‘I’ve just had a scan, and I know that [I’m] clear.’
The star has had to miss out on work commitments during her treatment, skipping the Mamma Mia 2 premiere in Summer 2018, with her PR team telling people she had a ruptured hernia so she could keep the news of her diagnosis secret.
Strong: The actress said she always had hope she’d make a full recovery after an optimistic prognosis from doctors, who said ‘we can fix this’
She also had to miss filming for her upcoming film The Secret Garden, with the production cutting her from certain scenes.
Dame Julie admitted that her diagnosis has changed her attitude toward work, explaining: ‘I was due to do two big series… and there were two films. And I just didn’t have to do any of it. And that was wonderful.
‘It was a relief to get off this merry-go-round. It’s the way I approach acting. It’s stressful, even if it is exciting stress. In between jobs, I work like mad on the character.’
Asked if she thought The Secret Garden could be her last film, she said it was possible.
Work: The actress had to miss filming for her upcoming film The Secret Garden, which will be released in April 2020 (pictured with co-star Colin Firth)
‘It would have to be something I’m really engaged with [to take another role on].
‘I’m not saying I’ll never act again. But I certainly don’t think I can go back to [a film that requires working] six days a week, five in the morning till seven o’clock at night.
‘I can’t blame all of that on cancer. I was getting jaded but I liked being around everyone. I didn’t have the same excitement or drive that I used to have.’
She also acknowledged that fame now bring a whole new element to it with social media.
‘I don’t have anything to do with that,’ she said.
‘You’re at the mercy of opinion enough without that, without any old Tom, Dick or Harry coming up and saying “you look old” or “you look fat” or “your acting’s dreadful”.
‘I don’t need that thanks I can question those things enough myself. So you know if you’re slightly fragile and you’ve got a wall of that coming at you, it’s unhealthy.
‘It makes people ill, and poor old Caroline Flack is a big example of that.’
In March 2019 Dame Julie hinted at her health troubles when she announced she was taking a year off work.
Speaking to The Standard, she explained: ‘I’m taking this year off, really. I’m doing voiceovers at the moment, but I want a rest because the last two, three years have been non-stop and I didn’t feel very well last year and was exhausted and I just thought “that’s it now”’.
The actress also revealed she planned to take on more light-hearted roles when she returns, admitting: ‘I would do Mamma Mia! again tomorrow. It wasn’t like a job, it was like a holiday.’
‘I don’t want to have to break my heart on stage every night, I just think that’s not good for you. And I don’t really want to do it in films and television any more either.
‘Roles that require me to be blubbing all the time, or mourning somebody, take a lot out of you.’
What is bowel cancer and what are the symptoms?
Bowel, or colorectal, cancer affects the large bowel, which is made up of the colon and rectum.
Such tumours usually develop from pre-cancerous growths, called polyps.
- Bleeding from the bottom
- Blood in stools
- A change in bowel habits lasting at least three weeks
- Unexplained weight loss
- Extreme, unexplained tiredness
- Abdominal pain
Most cases have no clear cause, however, people are more at risk if they:
- Are over 50
- Have a family history of the condition
- Have a personal history of polyps in their bowel
- Suffer from inflammatory bowel disease, such as Crohn’s disease
- Lead an unhealthy lifestyle
Treatment usually involves surgery, and chemo- and radiotherapy.
More than nine out of 10 people with stage one bowel cancer survive five years or more after their diagnosis.
This drops significantly if it is diagnosed in later stages.
According to Bowel Cancer UK figures, more than 41,200 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer every year in the UK.
It affects around 40 per 100,000 adults per year in the US, according to the National Cancer Institute.