3 important symptoms of bowel cancer you should know about

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  • As Dame Deborah James sadly passes away.

    In sad news today, Dame Deborah James has passed away after suffering a six-year battle with bowel cancer.

    The presenter was best known for her inspiring work as a cancer campaigner after being diagnosed six years ago.

    In a post on her Instagram page, her family shared: “We are deeply saddened to announce the death of Dame Deborah James; the most amazing wife, daughter, sister, mummy,” it said.

    They went on to detail how she shared the highs and lows of her own personal battle to “raise awareness, break down barriers, challenge taboos and change the conversation around cancer. Even in her most challenging moments, her determination to raise money and awareness was inspiring.”

    Bowel cancer: your need-to-knows

    Bowel cancer is the fourth most common cancer in the UK and the second biggest cancer killer, according to charity Bowel Cancer UK. Recent research by the University of Surrey published in the Journal of Medical Screening found that 70% of patients with bowel cancer are not diagnosed using official screening programmes, meaning diagnoses are often made late.

    As Dr Robert Kerrison, lecturer in cancer care at the University of Surrey explains, bowel cancer is one of the biggest cancer killers in England – but when diagnosed early, the disease is highly treatable. “It is vital, therefore, that it is caught early if we are to reduce the number of deaths from bowel cancer. It is very concerning that the majority of patients are receiving diagnoses via other routes, often at a time when the cancer is at a more advanced stage, as our research shows.”

    There are a number of different reasons why people don’t take part in screening – embarrassment or the “poo taboo”, as James coined, being the real reason. “We need to normalise this and help people understand the importance of screening, as it undoubtedly saves lives,” Kerrison goes on – something that Deborah rallied for over the last few years of her life.

    So what are the symptoms of bowel cancer, how common it is, and when should you worry and book a doctor’s appointment? All good questions, which is why we’ve asked a doctor for their take. Keep scrolling – and don’t miss our guides to gynae cancers, cancer care and breast cancer signs, while you’re here.

    Symptoms of bowel cancer: 3 to know about

    You’ll likely remember James’ final sign-off to her legion of fans – “find a life worth enjoying and always check your poo!” – because, yep, checking your stool is one of the key signs something might be off with your bowel.

    As Dr Natalie Direkze, consultant gastroenterologist at OneWelbeck explains, what’s most important is to know your body and your normal routine. “Everyone’s bowel movements are different, which is why you should only compare yours to your usual habits and no one else’s,” she stresses.

    That said, some symptoms of bowel cancer to keep an eye out for are:

    1. A change in bowel habit

    This should be a consistent change over time, where the form of your stool changes into something looser, or if you notice you need to go to the toilet more often than usual. “Bowel habits can vary from person to person, day to day – however a sudden and noticeable change to your bowel habit can be suggestive of an underlying health issue,” she shares. “This could span Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) or bowel cancer.”

    That’s why it’s important to look out for red flags when it comes to your bowel movements, including the following:

    2. Blood in your stool

    Noticed blood in your poo? Doctor Direkze says that you should always go to an expert if you do – “it’s always advisable to get this checked if it persists,” she shares.

    Why? Because it could be a sign that bleeding is also occurring higher up in the bowel which you may not be able to notice. “This can cause anaemia, fatigue and shorter breath during activity,” she shares. “If you are experiencing any of these symptoms for over a few weeks, it’s best to see your GP and request a blood test.”

    A young woman showing the symptoms of bowel cancer

    3. Abdominal pain

    While everyone experiences bloating and abdominal pain from time to time, the doctor warns that you should keep a note of when it’s happening and see a doctor if it happens frequently.

    “Persistent abdominal pain and bloating – especially brought on by eating – could be a sign of bowel cancer as it develops,” she shares. “It’s best to seek advice if these symptoms continue.”

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