Am I at Risk of Bowel Cancer? How do I find out?

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Oxford Screening Information Sheet

Bowel Cancer Symptoms

What are the key symptoms of bowel cancer?

1. None – It is vitally important to understand that it is possible for there to be bowel cancer present and there be no symptoms. That is how bowel screening works. Screening tests can detect some cancers and pre-cancerous polyps before symptoms develop. Treating early cancers and pre-cancerous polyps is the best chance for a cure.

2. Abnormal bleeding – Blood mixed in with the stool is a cardinal symptom of bowel cancer. Blood present only on the toilet paper when wiping is more likely to be local bleeding around the anus such as piles/haemorrhoids (dilated veins that bleed especially when constipated). Microscopic bleeding from a cancer or polyp won’t be noticeable but screening tests can pick this up.

3. Change in bowel habit – A change to constipation or to diarrhoea and even alternating constipation and diarrhoea is a sign of bowel cancer. Constipation happens because bowel cancer often grows into the passageway of the bowel and blocks the channel for stool causing constipation. This can be followed by explosive diarrhoea when the pressure builds up and eventually overcomes the obstruction.

4. Feeling of incomplete emptying of the rectum – The lowest part of the large bowel, the rectum, is a common place for cancers to occur and this may be felt as a fullness in the rectum sometimes described as a feeling of incomplete emptying.

5. Abdominal pain – A cancer obstructing the bowel will cause abdominal pain by pressure building up behind the obstruction as stool fails to pass the obstruction. This is a colicky pain that comes and goes as the bowel contracts to try to overcome the obstruction and then relaxes for a few minutes before contracting again.

6. Mucus in the stool – The bowel lining normally produces mucus but some cancers and polyps produce abnormally large amounts of mucus (a clear, sticky substance) that may be noticed in the stool.

7. Tiredness – The loss of small amounts of blood, going unnoticed in the stool, over a prolonged period of time can lead to anaemia (too few red blood cells) and cause tiredness, fatigue and breathlessness. Anaemia is easily detected by a simple blood test.

8. A lump in the abdomen – Whilst strictly speaking this is not a symptom but a sign, the presence of a mass/lump in the abdomen can be due to cancer from the bowel or from other organs such as the ovary in women. Any abnormal mass in the abdomen should be reported to your doctor urgently.

Important notes

1. If you have symptoms, you do not need a screening test you need to go to your doctor.

2. If you have any of these symptoms then there is a risk of bowel cancer but there are many other conditions that can cause these symptoms. So do not be too worried but do not ignore what your body is telling you and make sure you take action.

Keywords: bowel cancer symptoms, colon cancer symptoms, signs of bowel cancer, blood in stool, blood in poo, constipation, change in bowel habit, mucus in stool, lump in tummy

Author: Dr Colin Clelland

Tel 07534 900707


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