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University Hospitals Dorset NHS Foundation Trust

What is bowel cancer?

Bowel cancer, or colorectal cancer, is cancer of the colon (large bowel) or rectum (back passage). Bowel cancer is the third most common cancer and the second highest cause of cancer related deaths with 37,500 people being diagnosed and 16,000 people dying each year in the UK.

Most bowel cancers start as benign innocent growths - called polyps - on the wall of the bowel. Polyps are like small blemishes or cherries on stalks and most do not produce symptoms. Polyps are common as we get older and most of them are not pre-cancerous.

One type of polyp called an adenoma can, however, become cancerous (malignant). If left undetected the cancer cells will multiply to form a tumor in the bowel.

Early detection saves lives

Research suggests that over 90% of bowel cancer patients will survive for more than five years if they are diagnosed at the earliest stage. Bowel cancer screening aims to detect bowel cancer at early stages, ideally before people are experiencing any symptoms, and when treatment is more likely to be effective. Bowel cancer screening can also detect polyps. These can be removed at the time of screening and so reduce the risk of bowel cancer developing later on in that persons life.

The earlier bowel cancer is caught, the easier it is to treat

What to look out for?

Knowing the symptoms to look out for is vital to ensure the early diagnosis of bowel cancer. If symptoms persist for six weeks or more, you should visit your GP. Remember most people with higher risk symptoms do not have cancer. But the only way to tell may be from special tests recommended by your GP.

Symptoms to look out for include:

  • Change of bowel habit;
  • Recent, persistent change of bowel habit to looser, more diarrhoea-like motions.
  • Going to the toilet more often or trying to go
  • Change in bowel habit is especially important if you also have bleeding
  • Rectal bleeding

Rectal bleeding that persists with no anal symptoms. Bleeding can be due to piles but if so, you will usually have other anal symptoms eg. straining with hard stools, a sore bottom, lumps and itching.

If you are over 60 and suffering from rectal bleeding, it is important to go for further investigation

  • Unexplained anaemia
  • A lump in your stomach
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Abdominal pain
  • Persistant, severe, colicky stomach pain, which has come on recently for the first time (especially in older age group).
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