What is bowel cancer? Signs and symptoms as Adele Roberts discusses her treatment

·6-min read
Bowel cancer. (Getty Images)
Adele Roberts wants to help save the lives of others by raising awareness of bowel cancer symptoms. (Getty Images)

Adele Roberts has said that receiving treatment for bowel cancer early was life-saving, as she campaigns to raise awareness of the symptoms of the condition.

The BBC Radio 1 DJ, 44, shared in October 2021 that she was having treatment for her stage two diagnosis, later having surgery to remove a tumour and using a stoma bag (even appearing on the cover of Women's Health UK with one).

While Roberts announced she was cancer-free last June, she is now keen to encourage others to speak to a professional early on if they spot any symptoms, to help ensure a speedy diagnosis.

Diagnosed with the disease in 2016, she kept her thousands of social media followers in the loop about her treatments and progress until her death on 28 June at 40 years-old.

"My symptoms seemed like things I could explain away. I didn’t want to be a burden to the NHS and I was embarrassed.

But, she added, "I shouldn’t have worried. My GP took my concerns seriously, put me at ease and also offered me a home-testing kit. This meant I was able to do the test in the comfort of my own home.

"Soon after I was diagnosed with stage two bowel cancer, which was very nearly developing into stage three.

“Getting the help I needed in time helped save my life. If you’re worried please speak to someone, early detection saves lives and it helped save mine.”

Read more: Bowel cancer survivor who 'shouldn't even be here' proudly shows stoma bags at festival

Women clutching stomach to represent bowel cancer symptoms. (Getty Images)
There are five key potential bowel cancer symptoms to be aware of. (Getty Images)

The death of Dame Deborah James to bowel cancer last year also highlighted the importance of knowing the signs and symptoms of the condition.

Diagnosed with the disease in 2016, she kept her thousands of social media followers in the loop about her treatments and progress until her death on 28 June at the age of 40.

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 raised millions.

But some 38% of people still can't name any symptoms of bowel cancer, a new Bowel Cancer UK survey shows.

Plus, 59% of people said that something would likely prevent them from contacting a doctor if they experienced a change in bowel habit, including difficulties getting an appointment, being too embarrassed or being too afraid that it could be something serious

So, in time for Bowel Cancer Awareness Month this April, we take a look at what it is, key symptoms to be aware of and when to seek medical advice.

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

What is bowel cancer?

Doctor physician with computer tablet consulting with male patients stomach ache in hospital exam room. Men's health technology concept
Nearly 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 over the age of 60, according to the NHS (though younger people can get it too).

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 46 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

A young man of working age with abdominal pain
While symptoms may be harmless, it's important to rule out cancer and check for other conditions too. (Getty Images)

The key signs to be aware of, according to Bowel Cancer UK, include:

  1. Bleeding from your bottom and/or blood in your poo

  2. A persistent and unexplained change in bowel habit

  3. Unexplained weight loss

  4. Extreme tiredness for no obvious reason

  5. A pain or lump in your tummy

The NHS points out that some bowel cancer symptoms are very common and may be caused by other conditions, so there's no need to panic.

But while having these symptoms doesn't mean you definitely have bowel cancer, it's important to get checked by your GP, because if you do, finding it earlier means it's easier to treat.

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. AYour 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.

Additional reporting PA.