What is bowel cancer? Sign and symptoms, when to see a GP and treatment options available

By Helen Johnson
Thursday, 1st April 2021, 4:43 pm
Bowel cancer is one of the most common cancers in the UK, with more than 42,000 people diagnosed with the condition every year (Photo: Shutterstock)
Bowel cancer is one of the most common cancers in the UK, with more than 42,000 people diagnosed with the condition every year (Photo: Shutterstock)

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

Bowel cancer is a general term for cancer that begins in the large bowel, but depending on where the cancer starts it is sometimes called colon or rectal cancer.

But what are the signs and symptoms of bowel cancer, when should you see a GP and what are the treatment options?

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Here’s what you need to know.

What is bowel cancer?

Bowel cancer is the fourth most common cancer in the UK, according to Bowel Cancer UK.

The charity explains that most bowel cancers develop from pre-cancerous growths - which are called polyps - but not all polyps develop into cancer.

If your doctor finds any polyps, they can remove them in order to prevent them becoming cancerous, Bowel Cancer UK adds.

According to the NHS, the three main symptoms of bowel cancer are:

  • persistent blood in your poo – that happens for no obvious reason or is associated with a change in bowel habit
  • a persistent change in your bowel habit – which is usually having to poo more and your poo may also become more runny
  • 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

However, the NHS notes that most people with these symptoms do not have bowel cancer, and other health problems can cause similar symptoms.

When should I see a GP?

The NHS says you should see a GP if you have any of the symptoms of bowel cancer for three weeks or more.

The GP may then:

  • examine your tummy and bottom to make sure you have no lumps
  • arrange for a simple blood test to check for iron deficiency anaemia – this can show whether there's any bleeding from your bowel that you have not been aware of
  • arrange for you to have a simple test in hospital to make sure there's no serious cause of your symptoms

You should “make sure you see a GP if your symptoms persist or keep coming back after stopping treatment, regardless of their severity or your age,” adds the NHS.

What is the treatment for bowel cancer?

Bowel cancer can be treated using a combination of different treatments, depending on where the cancer is in your bowel and how far it has spread.

The main treatments are:

  • surgery – the cancerous section of bowel is removed. This is the most effective way of curing bowel cancer and in many cases is all you need
  • chemotherapy – where medicine is used to kill cancer cells
  • radiotherapy – where radiation is used to kill cancer cells
  • targeted therapies – a newer group of medicines that increases the effectiveness of chemotherapy and prevents the cancer spreading

However, the NHS explains that as with most types of cancer, the chance of a complete cure depends on how far it has spread by the time it's diagnosed.

If the cancer is confined to the bowel, then surgery is usually able to completely remove it.

Keyhole or robotic surgery is now being used more often. This allows surgery to be performed with less pain and a quicker recovery.

When is bowel cancer awareness month 2021?

Bowel cancer awareness month takes place throughout April each year and aims to raise awareness of bowel cancer and funds to support the work of Bowel Cancer UK.

You can get involved in a number of ways, including making a donation, reading real life stories or joining a virtual event which remembers those that have been lost to bowel cancer.

If you have any worries or concerns about bowel cancer, you should speak to your GP and further information regarding the condition is also available on the NHS website and Bowel Cancer UK.