What are the Symptoms of Bowel Cancer?

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Recognising the symptoms of bowel cancer and acting on them quickly could mean that if you do have bowel cancer, it may be diagnosed and treated earlier. People whose cancer is diagnosed at an early stage have a much better chance of successful treatment than those whose cancer has become more widespread.


Recognising The Main Symptoms

If you experience any of these symptoms or have concerns, consulting a healthcare professional is advisable for further evaluation and appropriate management.

  • Presence of Blood in Your Stools
  • Changes in Bowel Habits
  • Abdominal Pain

While these symptoms may seem common and often benign, it's crucial to pay attention to their persistence and combination, especially in individuals over 60 years old, as they can indicate underlying health issues such as bowel cancer.


Additional Signs to Note

Other symptoms may include unexplained weight loss, persistent fatigue, sensation of incomplete bowel emptying, and abdominal lumps or discomfort.


Symptom Combinations of Concern

When these symptoms occur in combination they are more of a concern as they are most often seen in patients with bowel cancer:

  • An ongoing bowel habit, causing them to go to the toilet more often and pass looser stools, usually together with blood on or in their stools
  • A persistent change in bowel habit without blood in their stools, but with abdominal (tummy) pain
  • Blood in the stools without other haemorrhoid (piles) symptoms, such as soreness, discomfort, pain, itching, or a lump hanging down outside the anus 
  • Abdominal pain, discomfort or bloating which is always caused by eating, sometimes resulting in a reduction in the amount of food eaten and weight loss


Importance of Bowel Cancer Screening in the UK

Bowel cancer screening plays a vital role in reducing the burden of colorectal cancer in the UK by detecting the disease at an early stage when treatment is most effective. The National Health Service (NHS) offers these screening tests to eligible individuals as part of its efforts to improve cancer detection and patient outcomes across the country. It's important for eligible individuals to participate in bowel cancer screening programs and discuss any concerns or symptoms with their healthcare providers for appropriate guidance and support.


Bowel Cancer Screening Tests

Screening is the process of looking for cancer in people who have no symptoms. Screening tests include stool-based tests and visual exams. Bowel Cancer Screening Test (FIT), Colonoscopy and Flexible Sigmoidoscopy.


Stool-Based Tests

Stool-based tests check the stool for signs of cancer. These tests are less invasive and easier to have done, but they need to be done more often. Any irregular test result should be followed up with a colonoscopy.

  • The Faecal Immunochemical Test (FIT) looks for occult (hidden) blood in the stool. Blood vessels in larger bowel polyps or cancers are often easily damaged by the passage of faeces and usually bleed into the colon or rectum.
  • The Guaiac-based faecal occult blood test (gFOBT) identifies hidden blood in the stool through a chemical reaction.
  • A stool DNA test (also known as a FIT-DNA test) looks for certain abnormal sections of DNA from cancer or polyp cells as well as for occult blood. Bowel cancer or polyp cells frequently have DNA mutations (changes) in some of their genes. The FIT-DNA test can detect cells with these mutations in the stool.


Visual (structural) Exams

These tests look at the inside of the colon and rectum for any abnormal areas that might have cancer or polyps. These tests can be done less often than stool-based tests, but they require more preparation ahead of time. Unlike stool-based tests, visual exams do carry some risks. During a colonoscopy the doctor looks at the entire length of the colon and rectum with a colonoscope. It is put in through the anus and into the rectum and colon. Special instruments can be used to remove any abnormal-looking areas such as polyps.

The CT colonography (or virtual colonoscopy) is an advanced type of computed tomography (CT) scan of the bowel which uses both x-rays and a CT scan to make 3-dimensional pictures of the inside of the rectum and colon. It can show abnormal areas, like polyps or cancer.

If polyps or other abnormal areas are seen on this test, a colonoscopy will need to be carried out to remove them and examine the area more fully.


When to See your Doctor

It is important to know that most people with these symptoms do not have bowel cancer. Other health problems can cause similar symptoms but if you have any of these problems, it is important to see your doctor right away so the cause can be found and treated.

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