Why a daily aspirin could have saved Bee Gee Robin: Breakthrough for families living with 'death sentence' bowel cancer gene



22:16 GMT, 2 June 2012

Tributes are still pouring in for Robin Gibb, one of the world’s finest singer/songwriters, who died last month aged 62. Sadly, it was of a disease that is preventable and curable – bowel cancer.

Even sadder is the fact that he had a family history of bowel cancer. All the success – the hit records, the millions the Bee Gees earned – couldn’t save him. But I believe he could, and should, be alive today if we had tried harder to find and to protect families such as his.

I’ve been on the steering committee of a worldwide genetic trial for bowel cancer and it’s had an amazing breakthrough. Trial results suggest that a daily aspirin could stop two-thirds of many family cancers in their tracks. Yet most affected families don’t know they can be tested for rogue genes, aren’t aware they should be offered regular surveillance and don’t know how to take avoiding action. Families such as the Gibbs.

Diagnosed too late: Robin Gibb with wife Dwina, who had to persuade him to be tested

Diagnosed too late: Robin Gibb with wife Dwina, who had to persuade him to be tested

I was approached by Robin’s agent last October, asking if there was anything I could do to help, but sadly it was too late – if caught early, two in three of these cancers can be cured with surgery. Then Robin’s cousin, Hazel Gibb Shacklock, mentioned to my husband John Stapleton in an interview on ITV’s Daybreak that the disease ran in their family. So I got in touch.

Hazel tells me: ‘Robin’s uncles died of bowel cancer, Eric at 37 and Roy – my father – on his 61st birthday. Great-uncle John died at 52, possibly of bowel cancer, too, but they put heart failure on his death certificate, as they often did in those days. When I saw Robin last summer, I was shocked by how he looked and guessed he had bowel cancer. He reminded me of my father when he was ill. But Robin didn’t do illness; you couldn’t talk to him about it.’

Robin had intestinal surgery in 2010 – an operation similar to the one that resulted in the death of his twin Maurice, 53, seven years earlier. He was told he needed a scan but put it off until the following spring when his wife and son persuaded him to go. Robin said at the time: ‘I was scared. I just didn’t want to be told any bad news.’

And the news was bad – he had bowel cancer and it had spread to his liver. When Hazel told her 17-year-old son that Robin had the cancer that had killed his grandfather and uncles, his response was: ‘Thanks for giving me a death sentence.’

He was joking, but it’s a joke with a serious undercurrent. It’s very likely that a rogue gene in the family’s make-up is predisposing them to developing bowel cancer. How sad that the Gibb family wasn’t investigated for the defective gene that was killing them.

In the family: Robin's twin Maurice, left, who died at 53, and their uncle Roy, who was 61 when he died of bowel cancer

In the family: Robin's twin Maurice, left, who died at 53, and their uncle Roy, who was 61 when he died of bowel cancer

But fewer than one family in ten with rogue genes in this country has so far been identified and offered surveillance. ‘We’ve never been offered genetic testing,’ adds Hazel.

TV presenter Matthew Wright, 46, has a similar family history to Robin’s. ‘All the men in my family had bowel cancer. My father died in his early 50s – it was devastating,’ he says.

When his third uncle was diagnosed with the cancer in his 40s a few years ago, Matthew discovered the family had a common genetic defect called Lynch Syndrome, which causes familial bowel cancer. It is not known whether Robin’s cancer was due to the syndrome – although post-mortem biopsies may reveal this. Most tumours in the bowel are slow-growing but Lynch-related cancers hit people at a younger age and move fast.

‘I was living my life expecting to get bowel cancer,’ says Matthew. ‘It wasn’t much of a life because when I looked to the future, it invariably involved an awful lot of pain followed by death. I was terrified of being told I had the gene.’

Matthew was then approaching 40, the age when the chance of developing cancers and dying dramatically increases. Yet still he refused to be tested. It took me three years to convince him, and to his great joy he discovered he was the first male in the family to have escaped the gene.

Dwina believes Robin's life could have been saved if he had taken aspirin daily

Dwina believes Robin's life could have been saved if he had taken aspirin daily

Professor Sir John Burn, from Newcastle University, led the research that produced the breakthrough about aspirin. The trial reported that two aspirin pills a day for two years reduced the incidence of bowel cancer by 63 per cent in a group of 861 patients with Lynch Syndrome.

He says: ‘There is enough evidence for most people to take a low-dose daily aspirin to prevent bowel cancer, and for families with a strong history, aspirin and surveillance will save many lives.’

For those aged from 50 to 65, he recommends a daily 75mg tablet. Possible side effects include internal bleeding and ulcers, so see your GP first.

Could aspirin have saved Robin We’ll never know, but the evidence is strong that it could help to save thousands like him. There could be 70,000 people in the UK with Lynch Syndrome who will see their families devastated when a cheap aspirin could have helped to save them.

Matthew encourages people to visit their GP if there’s a family history of bowel cancer. ‘You live in the shadow of death. No one wants to live like that,’ he says.

In the US they have developed a screening programme to hunt for families like the Gibbs. Prof Burn says: ‘The costs of treating someone who is dying are huge, and thousands are dying unnecessarily.’

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