Every April, the goal of Bowel Cancer Awareness Month is to raise awareness about the signs and symptoms of bowel cancer. Every year, nearly 43,000 people in the UK are diagnosed with bowel cancer, making it the fourth most common type of cancer and the second biggest cancer killer. Knowing the typical bowel cancer signs and symptoms will help you spot anything out of the ordinary. Early detection of bowel cancer improves the chances of successful treatment and increased survival.

Listed below are some important things to know about bowel cancer.

What is bowel cancer?

Bowel cancer is a type of cancer that affects the colon or rectum and is a general term for cancer that starts in the large bowel. It is also known as colon cancer, rectal cancer, or colorectal cancer.

Your risk of developing bowel cancer increases with age

The likelihood of developing bowel cancer increases with age. Bowel cancer is most common in people over the age of 50, accounting for more than nine out of ten new cases, and six out of ten cases are diagnosed in people over the age of 70. In the UK, there is an NHS bowel cancer screening programme, but it is only available to people aged 60+ (50+ in Scotland).

Over half of all bowel cancer diagnoses could be prevented

Bowel cancer is a largely preventable disease, with many risk factors related to lifestyle. Making positive changes to your bowel health can cut your risk of developing bowel cancer by up to 54%.

A diet high in red and processed meat has been linked to an increased risk of bowel cancer. Trying to reduce your consumption is thus a great way to improve your health and may provide an opportunity to try some new recipes. Having some ‘meat-free’ evening meals has the added benefit of increasing your vegetable intake, which is not only good for overall health but there is also evidence that a high-fibre diet may help to reduce your risk of bowel cancer. Many vegetables, wholegrains, nuts, seeds, and pulses are high in fibre.

View NHS guidance on ‘red meat and the risk of bowel cancer’

Here are some other ways you can reduce your risk of bowel cancer:

  • Reducing your weight if overweight or obese
  • Reducing your alcohol intake
  • Stopping smoking
  • Exercising regularly

Most bowel cancers start as pre-cancerous polyps (growths)

Bowel cancer usually develops slowly, beginning with pre-cancerous polyps that can be detected and removed. When bowel cancer is detected in its early stages, 9 out of 10 people survive.

Dame Deborah James and the BowelBabe campaign

Dame Deborah James tirelessly campaigned to raise awareness of bowel cancer and its symptoms before succumbing to the disease in June 2022, at the age of 40, when her bowel cancer became terminal. She not only raised a whopping £6 million for cancer research through her BowelBabe fund, but she also lobbied supermarkets to include bowel cancer symptoms on toilet paper packaging.

The concept was inspired by an idea submitted by an M&S employee who had personal experience with bowel cancer. The retailer has also encouraged its competitors to get involved and help save lives by removing any stigma associated with discussing the signs and symptoms of bowel cancer. Almost all retailers and Andrex now display bowel cancer symptoms on their toilet paper packaging.

What are the signs and symptoms of bowel cancer?

Almost half of UK adults can’t name a single symptom of bowel cancer! The seven typical signs and symptoms of bowel cancer are shown in the graphic below:

Graphic showing the 7 symptoms of bowel cancer.

As the disease progresses there may be other signs of bowel cancer to look out for. Bleeding may occur internally in the bowel but not be evident in the poo, leading to anaemia. This may cause:

  • Breathlessness
  • Dizziness
  • Tiredness
  • Looking pale

If the bowel cancer causes an obstruction, you may also experience the following signs and symptoms:

  • Vomiting
  • Bloating/distension – particularly in the area around your belly button.
  • Difficulty in having a poo and/or passing wind/gas

Get yourself checked out

Many of the signs and symptoms of bowel cancer can also be associated with other less serious conditions such as haemorrhoids (piles), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), diverticular disease, infection, or inflammatory bowel disease (ulcerative colitis/Crohn’s disease), so don’t panic if you have some of these symptoms.

However, if you experience any of these symptoms, or if something doesn’t feel right and your symptoms do not improve, you should consult your doctor and get yourself checked out.

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