What is bowel cancer? Signs and and symptoms to be aware of

Bowel cancer symptoms. (Getty Images)
Bowel cancer has three main symptoms. (Getty Images)

Following the death of Dame Deborah James to bowel cancer, it's important to know the signs and symptoms of the condition.

The host of BBC Podcast You, Me And The Big C, 40, was diagnosed with the condition in 2016, and kept her thousands of social media followers in the loop about her treatments and progress until her death on June 28.

Read more: Bowel cancer survivor credits Deborah James with helping her cope with diagnosis

James set up Bowelbabe Fund for Cancer Research UK, to raise "money to fund clinical trials and research into personalised medicine for cancer patients and supporting campaigns to raise awareness of bowel cancer".

To her "utter disbelief", it has - to date - raised more than £6.7m.

So, to understand the condition better, we take a look at what it is, the symptoms, and when to seek medical advice.

What is bowel cancer?

Doctor physician with computer tablet consulting with male patients stomach ache in hospital exam room. Men's health technology concept
Around 42,900 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer in the UK each year, according to Cancer Research UK.

Bowel cancer is one of the most common types of cancer diagnosed in the UK, with most people diagnosed with it over the age of 60, according to the NHS.

It is a general term for cancer that begins in the large bowel – depending on where it starts, bowel cancer is sometimes called colon or rectal cancer. The colon is the first part of the large bowel, is about five feet long and has four sections, of which cancer can develop in any section, while rectal cancer starts in the last part of the large bowel, the part that stores poo until it is ready to be passed out of the body.

Almost six in 10 people diagnosed will now survive their disease for 10 years or more, but with it still claiming around 44 lives every day, more research still needs to be done, Cancer Research UK highlights.

Other than age, the risk factors for developing bowel cancer include genetics and family history, medical conditions called familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP), Lynch syndrome, ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, and diet and lifestyle factors.

Read more: UK's four most common cancer types – the signs and symptoms to be aware of

Bowel cancer symptoms

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While symptoms might be harmless, it's important to rule out cancer, and check for other conditions too. (Getty Images)

There are three main symptoms of bowel cancer, which the NHS lists as:

  1. Persistent blood in your poo – that happens for no obvious reason or is associated with a change in bowel habit

  2. A persistent change in your bowel habit – which is usually having to poo more and your poo may also become more runny

  3. Persistent lower abdominal (tummy) pain, bloating or discomfort – that's always caused by eating and may be associated with loss of appetite or significant unintentional weight loss

While most people with these symptoms do not have bowel cancer, and many of these aspects could be due to other problems like piles or something you've eaten, it is still good to be aware of them as potential signs.

While younger people can get bowel cancer too, you should treat these symptoms more seriously as you get older, especially if they persist despite simple treatments.

Sometimes cancer can also block the bowel, known as a bowel obstruction, with symptoms including cramping pains in the abdomen, feeling bloated, constipation and being unable to pass wind and being sick – an obstruction is an emergency and you should see a doctor or got to an A&E quickly.

Read more: Men and cancer: How to spot the signs

When to seek medical advice for bowel cancer symptoms

Senior woman handshaking with doctor. Elderly couple is visiting clinic for checkup. They are standing at desk.
The earlier you seek advice for bowel cancer symptoms the better. (Getty Images)

You should see your GP if you have had any of the possible symptoms of bowel cancer for three weeks or more, the NHS website says.

When you see a doctor, they might examine your stomach and bottom to make sure you have no lumps, arrange for a simple blood test to check for iron deficiency and anaemia, or arrange for you to have a simple test in hospital to make sure there's no serious cause of your symptoms.

Regardless of your symptoms severity or your age, make sure you see a GP if they persist or keep returning after treatment.

Other than alerting a medical professional to symptoms, bowel cancer screening can also help to detect cases sooner, with everyone aged 60-74 who is registered with a GP and lives in England sent a home test kit every two years. To find out how to request one if you're a different age, find out more here.

Read more: 12 things people wish they knew about cervical screenings and results

Watch: Deborah James' BowelBabe fund raises more than £2 million as tributes pour in

Treatment for bowel cancer

For those who are found to have bowel cancer, it can be treated using a combination of different approaches, such as surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and targeted therapies, depending on where the cancer is in your bowel and how far it has spread. Again, the cure depends on how far it's spread. Your GP can explain the options in detail to you.

Bowel cancer can affect people's daily lives differently, depending on their stage or treatment, so finding the right sources of support and coping mechanisms is of course vital.

To find our more information about bowel cancer and what support you might find useful, visit Bowel Cancer UK, or call The Macmillan Support Line on 0808 808 0000 seven days a week 8am-8pm, or call Cancer Research UK's cancer nurses on 0808 800 4040 Monday to Friday 9am-5pm.