What are the signs and symptoms of bowel cancer? The disease, which is most common among over-60s, can affect anybody—no matter your age or biological age.
Mr Colin Elton, Consultant General and Colorectal Surgeon at The Wellington Hospital, part of HCA Healthcare UK spoke to woman&home about the disease and explained,“Bowel cancer is the term used for cancer which originates in the large bowel. The large bowel is also known as the rectum and colon."
Mr Elton tells woman&home, "It is the third most common cancer in the UK, especially for people over 60-years-old – in fact, 42,000 people in the UK are diagnosed with bowel cancer each year."
However, despite the statistics, he says, "Doctors can successfully treat the majority of bowel cancer cases; however, the key factor is catching it early enough."
The common signs and symptoms are as follows:
What are the symptoms of bowel cancer?
- Blood in your stools or bleeding from your bottom.
- A persistent and unexplained change in bowel habit – for example, you may have looser stools and may need to go more often, or you may feel as though you’re not going to the toilet often enough and not fully emptying your bowels.
- Extreme fatigue for no obvious reason – bowel cancer can lead to a lack of iron in the blood, and consequently, lead to iron deficiency (anaemia), which causes tiredness and pale skin.
- A pain, bloating, or lump in your abdomen.
- Unexplained weight loss.
Mr Elton says, “If you experience any of the symptoms listed above for two weeks or more, or feel that something isn’t quite right, speak to your GP."
He explains, "Your GP may decide to examine your stomach and bottom to make sure there are no lumps. They may arrange a test of your stool to see if there’s any blood hidden within your bowel motion, and may also arrange a blood test to check whether you have anaemia."
If necessary, they will refer you to an expert to have further tests to determine the cause of the issue.
"It’s important to highlight that if you are diagnosed with bowel cancer, it’s very treatable and the sooner it’s detected, the higher the chance of successful treatment.”
What causes Bowel cancer?
- Family history
According to the NHS (opens in new tab), these are the known causes of bowel cancer.
Age—Almost 9 in 10 people with bowel cancer are aged 60 or over.
Diet—A diet high in red or processed meats and low in fiber can increase your risk.
Weight—Bowel cancer is more common in overweight or obese people.
Exercise—Being inactive increases your risk of getting bowel cancer.
Alcohol—Drinking alcohol might increase your risk of getting bowel cancer.
Smoking—Smoking may increase your chances of getting bowel cancer.
Family history—Having a close relative (mother or father, brother or sister) who developed bowel cancer under the age of 50 puts you at a greater lifetime risk of developing the condition; screening is offered to people in this situation, and you should discuss this with your doctor.
What are the tests for bowel cancer?
- FIT (faecal immunochemical test)
- Bowel scope (flexible sigmoidoscopy)
- CT scan (in emergency situations)
FIT (fecal immunochemical test)
FIT is a DIY antibody test. You collect a single sample of your feces with a small stick, place it in a tube and send it off to your local screening center.
Bowel scope (flexible sigmoidoscopy)
A test carried out by a trained clinician where a thin, flexible tube with a mini-camera and light at the end is inserted into the lower bowel—where seven out of ten cancers occur to look for cancer or polyps. If found, these can be painlessly removed, making the test preventive as well as diagnostic.
A colonoscopy is a test carried out by a trained clinician to check inside your bowels and this test can help find what's causing your bowel symptoms. A long, thin, flexible tube with a small camera inside it is passed into your bottom.
Does bowel cancer affect people under 60?
Bowel cancer patients come in all ages although almost 9 in 10 people with bowel cancer are aged 60 and over.
One bowel cancer survivor, Sherrie Hager, opened up to woman&home about the commonly misdiagnosed symptom of bowel cancer that almost cost her her life.
At the age of 31, she experienced constant and severe bloating, saying, "I was a size 10 but...I looked pregnant"
"Everything I ate and drank went straight through me within an hour. I couldn't even drink plain water without feeling bloated and sick."
As she was a Chron's sufferer, her bloating was often dismissed as a side-effect of the condition. But suspecting there was something more going on, Sherrie insisted on a colonoscopy, which is when she was diagnosed with bowel cancer.
Luckily, she was able to seek treatment and if you suffer from any or all of the symptoms listed for over three weeks, the NHS advises that you see your doctor.
Although the disease is sadly not uncommon, there are ways to decrease your chance of getting bowel cancer.
How to reduce the risk of getting bowel cancer
- Reduce meat intake
- Eat recommended daily allowance of fruit and veg
- Keep a healthy weight
- Keep fit
- Reduce alcohol intake
- Don't smoke
What is the treatment for bowel cancer?
“Bowel cancer can be treated in a variety of ways, depending on where the cancer is in the bowel and how much it has spread," explains Mr Elton.
The following treatments can be used on their own, or as a combination depending on the severity and each individual’s condition.
- Surgery—often, surgery alone can cure the disease if the cancerous section of the bowel is removed completely, and it has not spread elsewhere. Keyhole surgery and robotic surgery, which we specialise in at The Wellington Hospital, is being used more often as it allows the surgery to be performed with less pain and a quicker recovery.
- Chemotherapy—chemotherapy can sometimes be given prior to surgery and may also be given after recovery from surgery to kill cancer cells. Sometimes chemotherapy may be given if the cancer has spread elsewhere, and surgery is not possible.
- Radiotherapy—radiotherapy may sometimes be given to shrink the cancer, particularly with tumours of the rectum, prior to surgery.
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