Bowel cancer: what you need to know

Bowel cancer: what you need to know

Professional Builder‘s GP on why it’s important to talk about bowel cancer.

Talking about bowel cancer means talking about your backside and poo – two things patients frequently apologise for! As a GP I can confirm I am happy to sit and talk all day long about both without being the slightest bit embarrassed. It is really important to talk about bowel health and to report any changes to your GP as it can be a sign of serious disease like cancer.

Bowel cancer affects both men and women and it is the 4th most common cancer in the UK according to Cancer Research UK. The risk of getting bowel cancer increases with age; other factors that may increase your risk include family history of bowel cancer, diet, being overweight and having a medical condition like inflammatory bowel disease. In some families, a genetic condition that causes the growth of polyps in the bowel may increase the risk of cancer.

So what should you look out for?

The symptoms of bowel cancer can vary depending on where the tumour is in the bowel and how big it grows. Some of the symptoms of bowel cancer include:

  • Change in bowel habit – often to diarrhoea or alternating diarrhoea and constipation
  • Blood in the stools or on wiping
  • Feeling like you still need to pass a motion even after you have finished
  • Weight loss
  • Abdominal pain
  • Abdominal swelling
  • Feeling tired or short of breath due to anaemia (low blood count)

If you have any of these symptoms it’s definitely worth a visit to see your doctor. We will examine your stomach and likely ask to do a digital rectal examination. This involves having a feel for any masses in the rectum (bottom of the bowel). Sometimes it is possible to feel a cancer here if it is low down. This examination only takes a minute and should not be painful for the patient. Based on the findings, often the next step is for blood tests and a referral for a colonoscopy (camera test). Colonoscopy is a helpful procedure as it allows the doctor or nurse to look at the lining of the bowel and take samples for further testing at the same time.

Of course, some people may have no symptoms of bowel cancer but still have the disease. We are lucky in the UK that we are all offered screening at regular intervals to try and track early cases of cancer so they can be diagnosed and treated. Depending on where you live might depend on what test you get offered – you might be invited to have a colonoscopy, or you might be sent a kit at home which analyses tiny pieces of poo to check for blood. Screening usually starts after the age of 50 as developing bowel cancer before this age is less likely (but not impossible so again, if you have symptoms – get it checked out!). I am always surprised by the number of people that don’t participate in bowel screening: the test is free and is sent to your home, all you have to do is poo – which you are probably doing anyway – and take a few minutes to complete the kit and send it back! Simple. Doing this might save your life. The sample kits are then sent away to the lab and checked for blood. If it is positive, then you will be invited for a colonoscopy to look for cancer. Not all blood in poo is related to cancer though so sometimes tests are done which confirm a normal looking bowel or another cause for bleeding such as haemorrhoids.

Bowel cancer can be treated, and sometimes cured, if caught early. Early detection is important as the cancer can spread within the body. Sometimes it is possible to have an operation to remove it, or sometimes it might be treated with chemotherapy or radiotherapy or both. It would depend on the type of cancer.

If you are worried about any symptoms of bowel cancer, or want to know a little bit more about it, please visit your GP or have a look at the Cancer Research website. Please don’t be embarrassed about speaking to your GP – we are happy to help or investigate if something isn’t right.


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