If you're worried you or a loved one may be at risk of bowel cancer, these are the symptoms and signs to be aware of. Expert advice from Toby Hammond, Consultant General and Colorectal Surgeon with healthcare booking platform Medstars.co.uk
Bowel cancer is one of the most common types of cancers in the UK, affecting 40,000 people each year, and one in 20 people during their lifetime. Yet, according to a survey by Wholegrain Goodness, two out of five women are uncomfortable talking about bowel problems, meaning diagnosis and treatment is regularly delayed.
Of course discussing your bowel movements doesn’t always make for the easiest conversation, but those who detect bowel cancer at an early stage – in other words, before the cancer has had a chance to spread - have the best survival rates at up to 100 per cent for women, so it pays to know what to look for and seek advice immediately. Currently, only 15 per cent of bowel cancers are diagnosed at stage one.
The symptoms of bowel cancer
- Blood in your stool or the passage of blood from your bottom
- A persistent change in bowel habit, such as diarrhoea
- Unexplained weight loss
- Unexplained anaemia if you are post-menopausal
- A hard irregular lump or swelling in your abdomen or around your anus
It is important to note that most people who have bowel cancer have no significant family history of it. If you have an immediate family member (mother, father, brother or sister) under the age of 50, or two or more close relatives diagnosed with bowel cancer at any age, you should consult your GP, but genetics are often not a significant factor.
On a separate note, do remember that stomach pains are generally NOT a symptom of bowel cancer, which tends to be painless in the earlier stages.
What happens in a bowel cancer examination?
Seeing your GP will almost certainly involve a rectal exam and potentially, referral to a bowel cancer surgeon. The most common way to investigate for bowel cancer is to perform a colonoscopy, where a tiny camera on a telescopic arm is passed up the back passage. This can be rather uncomfortable but is rarely painful or distressing.
Although it may seem embarrassing, remember that GPs and bowel cancer specialists perform examinations and colonoscopies every week - they have seen it all before and are there to help. Far better to have this simple test if it can potentially save your or a family member’s life than leave things too late if you have a warning sign associated with possible bowel cancer.
What can I do to lower my risk of bowel cancer?
There is no foolproof way to prevent bowel cancer, but you can possibly reduce the risk of it or increase the chances of an early diagnosis by:
- Taking part in the national bowel cancer screening programme. This is where you send a tiny stool sample taken yourself at home to a central laboratory through the post
- Making sure your diet is balanced, eating more fibre, pulses and vegetables and fewer processed foods
- Exercising regularly – at least two to three hours per week
- Keeping a healthy weight
- Quitting smoking and cutting down on alcohol
Some studies have also shown that taking aspirin for five years can reduce your risk, but this is something you should discuss with your GP first to assess the risks against the benefits, as some people with certain medical problems can’t tolerate aspirin well.
Your health is the most important thing and you shouldn’t let embarrassment get in the way. It might feel uncomfortable to talk about bowel problems but at the end of the day, it could save your life.