Bowel cancer: What are the symptoms and how many people does it affect?

Sabrina Barr
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Bowel cancer: What are the symptoms and how many people does it affect?

On Monday 1 April, BBC journalist Jeremy Bowen revealed he was diagnosed with bowel cancer last year.

The Middle East editor explained that he underwent tests after experiencing "funny pains" in his back and legs, before undergoing surgery to have a cancerous tumour removed.

Bowen, who is currently receiving chemotherapy treatment, has implored others to get tested, issuing his message on the first day of Bowel Cancer Awareness Month.

Bowel cancer is the fourth most common cancer in the UK, with more than 42,000 people diagnosed with the condition in the UK every year.

So what are the symptoms of bowel cancer and how can it be treated? Here's everything you need to know:

What is bowel cancer?

Bowel cancer, otherwise known as colorectal cancer, affects the large bowel, Bowel Cancer UK states.

The large bowel, also known as the large intestine, is made up of your colon and rectum.

When the cells in the body begin to divide and multiply in an uncontrolled manner, this leads to the development of cancer, Cancer Research UK explains.

While bowel cancer is more likely to develop in the large bowel than the small bowel, small bowel cancer can still occur.

The small bowel contains the duodenum, the part of the intestine which connects to the stomach, and the ileum, the part of the intestine which connects to the large bowel.

When cells have become cancerous in the large bowel, they may spread to other areas of the body, such as the liver or lungs. This is called advanced bowel cancer.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of bowel cancer can include a change in your bowel habits, ​blood in stool, weight loss, pain in your abdomen or back, fatigue and feeling as though you need to strain your back package, even after going to the toilet, Cancer Research UK outlines.

Cancer may also cause bowel obstruction, which is when passing stool or gas is either harder than usual or impossible.

When bowel obstruction occurs, you may experience cramping, bloating, constipation or nausea.

It's advised that you see your doctor or go to A&E immediately if you think you may have a bowel obstruction.

The NHS adds that experiencing symptoms associated with bowel cancer, such as abdominal discomfort and constipation, may not necessarily be indicative of bowel cancer.

For more information on symptoms of bowel cancer, visit the NHS here and Cancer Research UK here.

How many people does it affect?

Around 42,000 people in the UK are diagnosed with bowel cancer every year, Bowel Cancer UK states.

This equates to around 115 new cases of bowel cancer every day.

The majority of cases, more than nine in 10, occur in people over the age of 50, with around six in 10 occurring in people over the age of 70.

However, bowel cancer can affect individuals at any age.

Men are more likely than women to be diagnosed with bowel cancer.

One in 15 men are likely to be diagnosed with bowel cancer in their lifetimes, in comparison to one in 18 women.

How is it tested?

When being tested for bowel cancer, your GP will ask whether you have a history of bowel cancer in the your family, the NHS explains.

They will then likely conduct a rectal examination, which involves a doctor or nurse placing a gloved finger inside your rectum to check for any lumps.

Your blood will also be tested for iron deficiency, as those with bowel cancer may have a lack of iron in their blood due to bleeding.

If the tests indicate that you may have bowel cancer, you'll then be referred to a hospital to undergo a flexible sigmoidoscopy.

During a flexible sigmoidoscopy, a long, thin tube called a sigmoidoscope with a camera and light attached wil be inserted into your rectum and into the lower part of your large bowel.

You may also undergo a colonoscopy, which is similar to a flexible sigmoidoscopy but examines the entire large bowel.

Another form of test used to diagnose bowel cancer is a computed tomography (CT) colongraphy, which uses CT scans to examine the colon and rectum.

How can it be treated?

The measures used to treat bowel cancer may vary depending on which part of the bowel is affected.

The most common form of treatment for bowel cancer is surgery, the NHS outlines.

This may be paired with chemotherapy, radiotherapy or biological treatments.

If bowel cancer is detected at an early stage, it may be cured completely.

However, if the cancerous tumour cannot be removed completely through surgery, then a cure may not be possible, the NHS states.

For more information about treatment for bowel cancer, visit the NHS here and Cancer Research UK here.

To speak to a Cancer Research UK nurse, you can call 0808 800 4040. The helpline is free and open from Monday to Friday, from 9am until 5pm.