Bowel cancer: the most common symptoms to be aware of


owel cancer is one of the most common types of cancer diagnosed in the UK.

It’s also called colorectal cancer, and it affects the large bowel, which is made up of the colon and rectum.

Most people affected by bowel cancer are over the age of 60, but it can affect younger people too.

Deborah James, or as she’s affectionately known, Bowel Babe, has been raising awareness of the illness since being diagnosed with stage four bowel cancer in 2016. The You, Me, The Big C podcast host has raised £6.6 million for Cancer Research UK.

Bowel Cancer UK reported last year that two in five people couldn’t name a single bowel cancer symptom.

But being aware of the symptoms of bowel cancer is important, as it can help people get diagnosed early, allowing them to access treatment sooner.

What are the symptoms of bowel cancer?

The NHS says that more than 90% 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 tummy (abdominal) pain
  • blood in the poo without other symptoms of piles (haemorrhoids)
  • abdominal pain, discomfort or bloating always brought on by eating

The NHS says that constipation is rarely caused by a serious bowel condition.

Deborah James told Bowel Cancer UK that her symptoms included losing weight, passing blood, “going what felt like 100 times per day and feeling shattered.”

In some cases, bowel cancer can 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

The NHS recommends seeing a GP if you have any of the symptoms of bowel cancer for three weeks or more. If you have any symptoms of bowel obstruction, you should go to A&E.

What are the risks and causes of bowel cancer?

The risk of developing bowel cancer depends on a number of 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 of bowel cancer. Being overweight or obese, smoking, and drinking alcohol are also risk factors.

Family history can also impact your risk of 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.

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