The signs of bowel cancer you should be aware of

As the award-winning podcaster Deborah James confirms she has moved to hospice care for her cancer, we look at the main signs of bowel cancer you should be aware of

Abi Jackson,Joanna Whitehead
Tuesday 10 May 2022 10:02 BST
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The award-winning podcaster Deborah James has said she is receiving hospice care for her bowel cancer, stating “nobody knows how long I’ve got left”.

The mother-of-two, who hosts the popular You, Me and the Big C podcast, told her Instagram followers on Monday that the last six months had been “heartbreaking”, but that she is “surrounded by love” and had “no regrets”.

The 40-year-old was diagnosed with the condition in 2016 and has become an advocate for raising awareness about cancer, alongside sharing regular updates about her diagnosis and treatments.

She wrote on Monday: “We have tried everything, but my body simply isn’t playing ball.

“My active care has stopped and I am now moved to hospice at home care, with my incredible family all around me and the focus is on making sure I’m not in pain and spending time with them.”

She continued: “Nobody knows how long I’ve got left but I’m not able to walk, I’m sleeping most of the days, and most things I took for granted are pipe dreams.

“I know we have left no stone unturned. But even with all the innovative cancer drugs in the world or some magic new breakthrough, my body just can’t continue anymore.”

Bowel cancer is the fourth most common cancer in the UK, according to charity Bowel Cancer UK, with nearly 43,000 people being diagnosed every year in the UK.

More than nine out of 10 new cases (94 per cent) occur in people over the age of 50, and nearly six out of 10 cases (59 per cent) are diagnosed amongst people aged 70 and over. But it’s important to remember that bowel cancer can affect anyone of any age - more than 2,600 new cases are diagnosed each year in people under the age of 50.

According to Bowel Cancer UK, one in 15 men and one in 18 women will be diagnosed with bowel cancer during their lifetime.

More than 16,500 people die from bowel cancer in the UK every year. It is the second biggest cancer killer in the UK. But the number of people dying of bowel cancer has been falling since the 1970s, which may be due to earlier diagnosis and better treatment.

Bowel cancer is treatable and curable, however, and early detection can save your life. Nearly everyone diagnosed with the condition at the earliest stage survives, but this drops significantly as the disease develops.

So what are the possible bowel cancer symptoms? Here’s everything you need to know.

What are the main symptoms of bowel cancer?

“It can be easy to dismiss the symptoms of bowel cancer, and people often put different bowel movements or bloating down to stuff they eat or changes in their body as they get older. However, delaying getting help can really put people at risk – like many cancers, if caught early enough bowel cancer is curable,” says Elizabeth Rogers, associate clinical director and GP at Bupa UK.

“If you notice any blood in your poo, changes to your bowel movement, bloating or abdominal pain after eating, see your GP as soon as possible. Don’t put it off, early diagnosis really does save lives. Other symptoms include unexplained weight loss and extreme tiredness for no reason.”

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Even if there isn’t blood, get things checked

Spotting signs of blood is a red flag symptom that should never be ignored. But that doesn’t mean it’s the only symptom – so even if there’s no blood, check in with your GP. “Any changes to bowel movement, bloating and abdominal pain after eating should always be checked with the doctor as soon as possible,” says Rogers.

Keep an eye on changes

When it comes to our toilet habits, what’s normal for one person may be different for another. For example, some people have more daily bowel movements while other go a lot less frequently. A helpful rule of thumb is to always get things checked if you notice changes that are unusual for you.

“I always advise people to be aware of what’s normal for them,” says Rogers, “and to ‘check-CUP for cancer’ – to check for a ‘change that is unexplained or persistent’.”

What if you’ve already got a history of dodgy digestive symptoms?

Digestive issues are extremely common and these symptoms don’t always mean bowel cancer. They can also occur due to conditions like IBS food intolerances and inflammatory bowel disorders, for example. This can make it tricky to know when to go back to your doctor, especially if you’ve been living with gut issues for a long time. However, Rogers says it’s still important to “see your GP” if you notice any of the changes outlined above. If anything seems unusual, different, or is causing concern, go get it checked.

Are some people at higher risk of bowel cancer?

Rogers says bowel cancer is “rare before age 40” but it is possible at any age. Some people may be at higher risk, including “if you have a family history of bowel cancer, have an inherited bowel condition such as familial adenomatous polyposis or hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer, also known as Lynch syndrome”.

People with long-term inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis, or who have a history of non-cancerous growths (polyps or adenomas) may also be more at risk. Rogers notes that other factors, such as obesity, smoking, a diet lacking in fibre and/or high in processed and red meats, and drinking too much alcohol can also be associated with higher rates of bowel cancer.

Any symptoms? Get it checked

That said, the disease can impact people who are fit and healthy too – Roberts is known for her love of fitness and being a keen runner. So everybody should get things checked out if they have any symptoms.

For more information, contact Bowel Cancer UK.

Macmillan Cancer Support offers free advice and support to those living with cancer and their loved ones.

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