What is bowel cancer? Early symptoms and how you can get checked

·5-min read
What is bowel cancer? Early symptoms and how you can get checked

Radio 1 DJ Adele Roberts said receiving treatment for bowel cancer early helped “save my life”, as she supports a campaign to raise awareness about the symptoms of the condition.

The 44-year-old was diagnosed with stage two bowel cancer in October 2021 before receiving the all clear from doctors in June.

At first she said she was “embarrassed” to get in touch with the doctors to talk about the symptoms she was experiencing.

“It took me a while to pluck up the courage to call my GP at first,” she said. “My symptoms seemed like things I could explain away. I didn’t want to be a burden to the NHS and I was embarrassed. I shouldn’t have worried. My GP took my concerns seriously, put me at ease and also offered me a home-testing kit. This meant I was able to do the test in the comfort of my own home.

“Soon after, I was diagnosed with stage 2 bowel cancer, which was very nearly developing into stage 3. Getting the help I needed in time helped save my life. If you’re worried, please speak to someone, early detection saves lives and it helped save mine.”

A new survey by Bowel Cancer UK has found that 38 per cent of people cannot name any symptoms of bowel cancer.

As part of the charity’s new campaign for Bowel Cancer Awareness Month this April, they are flagging a number of the key signs, which include blood in your poo, change of bowel habits, pain or lump in your tummy, weight loss and fatigue.

Bowel cancer is the fourth most common cancer in the UK and the second-biggest cancer killer, with thousands of people dying from it every year.

Here is what we know about the condition, its symptoms and how to check if you have it.

What is bowel cancer?

The bowel is split into two parts, the small bowel and the large bowel. The large bowel includes the colon, the rectum and the bowel opening (anus). When cells in these parts of the body grow and reproduce uncontrollably, invading and destroying healthy tissue, bowel cancer is diagnosed.

Fight CRC, a colorectal cancer advocacy organisation raising awareness of the disease, says about 90 per cent of bowel cancer cases have occurred in people aged over 50 since the mid-1990s. However, the number of new cases has sharply risen among adults under the age of 50.

How common is bowel cancer in the UK?

The disease is the second most deadly form of cancer in the UK after lung cancer.

Bowel Cancer UK says one in 15 men and one in 18 women will develop the condition at some point.

Roughly 43,000 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer in the UK every year, with around 268,000 living with the disease.

Bowel Cancer UK reported that two in five people couldn’t name a single bowel cancer symptom. However, the NHS has now said that a record number of people in England are having bowel cancer checks following the death of Deborah James.

What are the symptoms of bowel cancer?

The NHS says that more than 90 per cent of people with bowel cancer have one of the following combinations of symptoms:

  • a persistent change in bowel habit – pooing more often, with looser, runnier poos, and sometimes stomach (abdominal) pain.

  • blood in the poo without other symptoms of piles (haemorrhoids).

  • abdominal pain, discomfort or bloating always brought on by eating.

Biggest symptom of bowel cancer not to ignore

A recent study published in BMC Primary Care involved 511 cases of cancer among 61,802 patients.

The study found rectal bleeding, also known as haematochezia, was the most common symptom. This had a specific rating of 99.4 per cent, meaning it is the most reliable indicator of bowel cancer.

Bowel cancer can in some cases cause bowel obstruction, which is when digestive waste can’t pass through the bowel. Symptoms of bowel obstruction include the following:

  • intermittent, and occasionally severe, abdominal pain always brought on by eating.

  • unintentional weight loss with persistent abdominal pain.

  • constant swelling of the tummy with abdominal pain.

  • being sick with constant abdominal swelling.

When should I see a GP?

The NHS advises people to seek medical advice if they have any of the symptoms for three weeks or more.

“Make sure you see a GP if your symptoms persist or keep coming back after stopping treatment, regardless of their severity or your age. You’ll probably be referred to hospital,” adds the national health body.

A plant-based diet has been found to help reduce a person’s risk of developing bowel cancer.

What are the risks and causes of bowel cancer?

The risk of developing bowel cancer depends on several factors, including age, genetics and lifestyle.

Cancer Research UK says eating too much red and processed meat or eating too little fibre can increase your risk. Being overweight or obese, smoking and drinking alcohol are also risk factors.

Family history can also affect the likelihood of you developing bowel cancer. Cancer Research UK says: “Your risk of bowel cancer is increased if you have a first-degree relative (parent, sibling, child) diagnosed with bowel cancer.”

Some medical conditions, including bowel conditions, can also increase your risk.

For more information, visit Cancer Research UK and the NHS website.