Bowel cancer diagnoses have been given to about 268,000 people living in the UK today. Bowel cancer has the second-highest mortality rate of all cancers, and is the fourth most common cancer in the UK. People aged 70 or over account for 59% of all bowel cancer diagnoses, while more than nine out of ten new cases (94%) are diagnosed in people over the age of 50. Like many illnesses, including other types of cancer, bowel cancer is easier to treat the earlier it is diagnosed.
If your cancer becomes widespread before it is diagnosed, your treatment is less likely to be successful than it would be if you received your diagnosis at an early stage. Discussing sensitive subjects with your doctor – things like going to the toilet and bowel movements – can be very embarrassing, especially when you have difficult questions to ask. For this reason, it’s really important that accurate information about bowel cancer is made widely available.
The word “cancer” can evoke a wide range of responses and feelings, but this diagnosis is not a death sentence. There is treatment available. With the right information, you can raise any concerns you have with your doctor effectively to ensure swift diagnosis, treatment and recovery. This article will cover the very basics.
We should never ignore the symptoms of a potentially serious condition – no matter how “embarrassing” we may find them. Bowel problems are a common topic for doctors, so there is no reason to feel ashamed of seeking important care. Every year in the UK, over 42,000 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer. It is a condition that can affect absolutely any age group at any time.
Where Are My Bowels?
After it’s transported to your stomach from your mouth, the food you eat is digested and passed into the small intestine. At this point, essential nutrients are extracted from your food. Your gastrointestinal (GI) tract is where your bowels are located. This is the part of your body responsible for extracting all the water and nutrients that our bodies need from the food we eat. The large bowel (large intestine) then removes all the water from what remains, before passing it out of the body through the rectum (back passage) via the anus.
The Large Bowel
The final section of your gastrointestinal tract, consisting of the colon (large intestine) and rectum, is known as the large bowel. This organ begins next to the appendix – where it joins to the small intestine – and runs up the right side of your belly (abdomen).
The Following Symptoms Can Indicate Bowel Cancer:
- A persistent and unexplained change in bowel habit
- Losing weight for no obvious reason
- A lump or unexplained pain in your abdomen
- Extreme tiredness for no obvious reason
- Blood in your poo and/or bleeding from the anus
If you have experienced any of the symptoms above, it’s worth going to your doctor to have it checked out. Even if it turns out that something else entirely is causing these symptoms, receiving treatment to relieve these symptoms will make your life much more enjoyable!
Bowel cancer is not the culprit in the vast majority of cases featuring these symptoms. Similar symptoms can be caused by other health problems. All the same, you should go to see your GP if you have one or more of these symptoms, or if things just don’t feel right. Any condition affecting the digestive system can be very uncomfortable to live with, but they’re generally very simple to treat.
Note: Another condition which causes patients to feel or be sick and have strong pains and bloating in the stomach area occurs when a tumour blocks the bowel. This condition is known as bowel obstruction. Passing wind or using the toilet may also become difficult or impossible with this condition. You should go to a hospital A&E department or visit your GP straight away if you think you have a blocked bowel.
Bowel obstruction is serious, but occurs more commonly in advanced cancer than it does in the early stages.
Blood in your bowel movements (poo) or from your bottom could be caused by a number of different factors. If your back passage contains swollen blood vessels (haemorrhoids or piles), you may see bright red blood. Alternatively, bowel cancer could be the culprit. If the blood is coming from your stomach or bowel, it is likely to be black or dark red. In order to get the right treatment, you need to tell your doctor as accurately as you can about any bleeding you notice.
Changing Bowel Habits
Especially if you’ve also noticed any bleeding, you should tell your GP if you experience any unexplained, ongoing changes in your bowel habit. Examples of this include needing to poo more often than normal or having runnier, looser stools. If you don’t feel as though you’re fully emptying your bowels or using the toilet often enough, this is also worth noting.
Weight loss is a slightly less common symptom, though no less important. If you don’t know why you’ve lost weight recently, speak to your GP. If you haven’t been feeling hungry or have felt sick or bloated, this may well have affected your appetite. Some of those with bowel cancer will experience abdominal pain or bloating when they eat, which will result in a reduction in the amount of food eaten.
A lack of red blood cells (anaemia) can come about as a result of a lack of iron in the body, caused by bowel cancer. Your skin may look pale if you have anaemia, and you are likely to feel very tired.
For more information about bowel cancer, check out Need2Know’s Essential Guide to Bowel Cancer which will contain practical advice and information on treatment choices and how to cope on a daily basis. For healthy individuals it also gives valuable information about how you can reduce the risk of developing bowel cancer and useful tips on healthy eating and lifestyles. Need2Know also have some great books about skin cancer, irritable bowel syndrome and testicular cancer. Whether you’re newly diagnosed, caring for a friend or just curious, we have all the information you need!