Bowel cancer is a general term for cancer that begins in the large bowel – a part of the digestive system that includes the colon and rectum. The effectiveness of treatment intentions depend on how far the cancer has progressed when it is picked up. This underscores the importance of responding to symptoms if and when they arise.
Unfortunately, the symptoms of bowel cancer can be subtle and do not necessarily make you feel ill so it can be hard to attach the dots.
Due to its location, many bowel cancer symptoms stem from a disruption to the digestive system.
According to Macmillan Cancer Support, one telltale sign is the feeling that you have not emptied your bowel properly after you poo.
Other warning signs include:
- Blood in or on your poo (stools), or bleeding from the back passage (rectum) – the blood may be bright red or dark
- A change in your normal bowel habit that happens for no obvious reason and lasts longer than three weeks – for example, diarrhoea or constipation
- unexplained weight loss
- Pain in your tummy (abdomen) or back passage
- Unexplained tiredness, dizziness or breathlessness
- A lower than normal level of red blood cells (anaemia).
As Macmillan points out, sometimes the cancer can cause a blockage (obstruction) in the bowel.
If this happens, you may:
- Feel constipated and bloated
- Have tummy pain
- Be sick (vomit).
How to respond
Most people with the above symptoms do not have bowel cancer because they can be attributed to a host of less serious health complaints.
However, as the NHS points out, you should see a GP if you have any of the symptoms of bowel cancer for three weeks or more.
“When you first see a GP, they’ll ask about your symptoms and whether you have a family history of bowel cancer,” explains the health body.
As it explains, they’ll usually carry out a simple examination of your bottom, known as a digital rectal examination (DRE), and examine your tummy (abdomen).
This is a useful way of checking whether there are any lumps in your tummy or bottom (rectum).
Am I at risk?
The exact cause of bowel cancer is unknown. However, research has shown several factors may make you more likely to develop it.
It is worth noting that having one or more risk factors doesn’t mean that you will definitely get bowel cancer.
Your risk of developing bowel (colon and rectal) cancer depends on many things including age, genetics and lifestyle factors.
According to Cancer Research UK, many studies have shown that eating lots of red and processed meat increases the risk of bowel cancer.
“It is estimated that around 13 out of 100 bowel cancer cases (around 13 percent) in the UK are linked to eating these meats,” warns the charity.
Processed meat is any meat that has been treated to preserve it and/or add flavour – for example, bacon, salami, sausages, canned meat, or chicken nuggets.
A linked lifestyle factor is obesity, which is tied to 11 out of 100 bowel cancers, current estimates suggest.
Obesity means being very overweight with a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher. And being overweight is a BMI of between 25 and 30.
Other risk factors include:
- Physical activity
- Smoking tobacco
- Family history
- Ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease
- Previous cancer
- Medical conditions
- Benign polyps in the bowel