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Bowel Cancer: Symptoms and Treatment

Do you know the symptoms of bowel cancer and how to help reduce your risk?

Bowel cancer is the fourth most common cancer in the UK, after breast, prostate and lung cancers. It can be treatable and curable if diagnosed early. Nine in ten people with stage 1 bowel cancer survive five or more years after diagnosis, but this number drops when the disease is further developed.

What are the symptoms of bowel cancer?

Bowel Cancer UK says symptoms to look out for include:

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

  • A change in bowel habit lasting three weeks or more.

  • Unexplained weight loss.

  • Extreme tiredness for no obvious reason.

  • A pain or lump in your tummy.

If you have one or more of these symptoms, it’s important to see a doctor and to remember that other health problems can cause similar symptoms.

Why is bowel cancer screening so important?

If you are aged 60–74 in England, Wales or Northern Ireland, or 50–74 in Scotland, you will receive a free NHS bowel cancer screening test in the post every two years. This programme is now expanding so that everyone aged 50 to 59 years will be eligible for screening, this is happening gradually over 4 years and started in April 2021.

If you are aged 75+ you can ask the NHS for a testing kit every two years via the telephone (0800 0121 833 if you live in Scotland and 0800 707 6060 for England, Wales and Northern Ireland). If you are aged 55, you may be auto invited for a one-off screening test if it is available within your area.

Screening is helpful for detecting bowel cancer even before any symptoms might appear when it is easier to treat. It can also prevent bowel cancer from developing in the first place, as it can pick up non-cancerous growths (polyps), which, if untreated, could become cancerous in the future.

The test is simple and can be carried out at home. The test looks for hidden blood in your stool, which can be a sign of bowel cancer. Results are usually with you around two weeks later.

If the results aren’t clear, you may be asked to do the test again. If blood is found in your sample, you may need more tests to take a closer look at what might be causing this. This doesn’t mean someone has cancer, as it could be as a result of a non-cancerous polyp or another health problem. However, it is worth investigating. If it is cancer, the earlier it is diagnosed, the quicker it can be treated and the greater the chance of survival. Irrespective of the bowel cancer screening programme or results, if you have any of the above symptoms discuss these with your GP provider.  

How can I reduce my risk of developing bowel cancer?

Although what causes most bowel cancers is unknown, there are some risk factors that can increase a person’s risk of getting the disease. Some you can’t do anything about – for example, a history of inflammatory bowel disease, age and genetics – but there are some lifestyle changes that can lower your risk of developing the disease:

According to the NHS, here are some of the risks:

Diet - Eating a diet high in red or processed meats and low in fibre can increase your risk. Learn how to fit more veg into your diet.

Weight - the disease is more common in people who are overweight or obese.

Exercise - Being inactive increases your risk of getting bowel cancer.

Alcohol and smoking - It’s believed that a high alcohol intake and smoking may increase your chances of getting bowel cancer.

Type 2 diabetes - patients with type 2 diabetes have a 38% high risk of developing colon cancer than those without diabetes. Therefore it is imperative that you follow a healthy lifestyle aiming to get your blood sugar levels within a normal range.


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Medically reviewed by Llinos Connolly March 2023. Next review date: March 2024.