With GP waiting times increasing in many practices, and appointments for non-urgent care more difficult to access, home blood testing is becoming a common alternative for many people looking to take control of their health.
After the sad passing of Deborah James, BBC podcast presenter and bowel cancer spokesperson, enquiries around bowel health have increased.
Around 23,000 people in the UK have been inspired to Google bowel cancer symptoms and educate themselves on the signs to look out for, thanks to Deborah who, through her alias ‘BowelBabe’, aimed to raise awareness and encourage people to speak to their GP about their health concerns.
As the fourth most common cancer in the UK, with around 43,000 new cases diagnosed annually, it’s important to be aware of what to look out for, and to take action quickly, as early detection and treatment can have a huge impact on recovery.
What is bowel cancer?
It’s normal for the cells in our bodies to grow and divide. This usually happens in a controlled way but sometimes, this process changes and can result in the development of cancers.
Bowel cancers specifically often develop from pre-cancerous growths known as polyps. While not all polyps become cancerous, it’s still very important to be aware of them, and to have them checked by a doctor and removed so that they can’t go on to become cancerous.
As with other cancers, there is also a risk that it can spread to other organs and systems in the body – another reason why early detection is so important.
While bowel cancer most commonly affects people over the age of 50 (around 94%), more than 2,600 new cases are diagnosed every year in people under that age, so it’s important not to dismiss symptoms, thinking that the disease won’t affect you because you’re younger.
What are the symptoms of bowel cancer?
The earlier bowel cancer is detected, the easier it is to treat, so awareness of the warning signs of the disease is something we should all have.
It might not be something you want to think, or talk about, but knowing the key warning signs of bowel cancer, and talking to your GP if you notice them, is so important. Here are the things you need to look out for:
Changes to your bowel habits
It’s normal to experience changes to your bowel habits from time to time. Diet and lifestyle factors, stress, food intolerances and short-term illnesses can all cause the frequency and consistency of your stools to change.
But if you find that this persists you should speak to your GP. Be aware if you are needing to poo more often, your stools are looser, you’re going to the toilet much less often or you feel like you’re not fully emptying your bowels when you go.
Finding blood when you poo can be caused by a number of factors. Bright red blood may indicate haemorrhoids which have become irritated. Dark red blood could be a sign of something more serious. If you notice blood in your stool or when you wipe, talk to your doctor and get checked out.
Unexplained weight loss
Although less common than other symptoms, unexplained weight loss is another sign to be aware of, particularly if it’s in conjunction with other warning signs. If you’ve been losing weight without changing your diet or exercise routines and habits, and you’re concerned, talk to your GP.
Bowel cancer can cause a lack of iron, leading to anaemia and a persistent feeling of exhaustion. Fatigue is common and can be related to a whole host of conditions, but it’s worth keeping an eye on, particularly if you’ve also noticed some of the other symptoms.
Pain or a lump
Bowel cancer can cause you to have pain or a lump in the abdomen or back passage. If you notice this, speak to your GP and get checked out to rule out anything serious.
What causes bowel cancer?
While the exact cause of bowel cancer isn’t known, there are various factors which can increase your risk of developing the disease, including:
- Age. Almost 9 in 10 people with bowel cancer are aged 60 or over
- Alcohol. Drinking alcohol might increase your risk of getting bowel cancer
- Diet. A diet low in fibre and high in red or processed meats can increase your risk
- Exercise. Being inactive increases your risk of getting bowel cancer
- Family history. Having a close relative who developed bowel cancer under the age of 50 puts you at a greater lifetime risk.
- Smoking. Smoking may increase your chances of getting bowel cancer
- Weight. Bowel cancer is more common in those who are overweight
- Related conditions. Some people also have an increased risk of bowel cancer because they've had extensive ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease for more than 10 years.
Is it possible to prevent bowel cancer?
While there is not tried and testing way to completely avoid developing cancer, there are always positive steps and better choices we can make to improve our chances of staying healthy. Some of the best things you can do to lower your risks of bowel cancer include:
- Eating a healthy high-fibre diet
- Exercising regularly
- Eating less red and processed meat
- Quitting smoking
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Lowering your alcohol intake
Being aware of your family health history
Is there a way to check your general gut health?
Maintaining a healthy gut is a cornerstone of good health. When the gut is unbalanced, it can lead to a range of unwanted and uncomfortable side effects, as well as feelings of lethargy and low mood.
While exercise and diet play a huge part in helping to keep the gut and the general digestive system functioning well it can be helpful to take a closer look with gut health testing from time to time.
With knowledge of how your gut is functioning, you can make the right alterations to optimise your health and wellbeing.
Most importantly, know what is normal for you and your body and talk to your doctor if you notice any changes which concern you.