Sadly, in the UK, there are 42,886 new cases of bowel cancer diagnosed every year and 16,808 deaths. According to Cancer Research UK, nine in 10 new cases develop in people over 50, and six in 10 in people aged 75 and over.

While these figures are bleak, research shows that, when diagnosed at its earliest stage, 92% of people with bowel cancer will survive the disease for five years or more – compared with 10% when the disease is diagnosed at the latest stage.

For this reason, it’s incredibly important to take part in bowel cancer screenings and to speak to your doctor if you have any symptoms.

Bowel cancer screenings - who should take part and how to get involved

Bowel cancer screenings - who should take part and how to get involved

Bowel cancer screenings are carried out in the comfort of your own home using a test kit, called a faecal immunochemical test (FIT), that you should receive by post.

In England, screenings are gradually being offered to people aged 50+ as of April 2021. In Scotland, screenings start from age 50; in Wales, from 58; and in Northern Ireland, from 60.

You’ll be offered screenings every two years until you reach the age of 75. At this point, you can still ask to receive a screening kit every two years by calling the bowel cancer screening helpline on 0800 707 60 60.

The instructions on your screening kit are straightforward. You’ll be required to collect and send off a small sample of poo to a lab, where it’ll be checked for tiny amounts of blood that could be a sign of polyps or bowel cancer. Polyps are growths in the bowel that aren’t cancerous – but can turn into cancer over time.

If there’s anything abnormal about your test result, you might be invited to attend further screening tests at hospital, to rule out cancer.

For more information on how to do the FIT bowel screen test, you can check out the short video from Cancer Research UK below.

It’s important to make sure that your GP practice has your correct address so that they can make sure your test kit reaches you. You should also speak to your GP if you’re worried about a family history of bowel cancer or are experiencing symptoms.

Below, we’ll cover some of the most common symptoms to look out for.

6 warning signs of bowel cancer that shouldn’t be ignored

It’s important to remember that bowel cancer doesn’t always show obvious symptoms – especially in its earliest stages – which is why taking part in screenings is so important.

However, there are some things you can look out for and that should be discussed with your doctor.

These may include…

1. A persistent change in bowel habits

According to the NHS, a persistent change in bowel habits (that lasts longer than three weeks) is the most common symptom of bowel cancer. For example…

  • pooing more often and passing stools that are runnier and looser
  • increasing constipation
  • passing narrow, pencil-thin or ribbon-like stools
  • alternating bouts of diarrhoea and constipation

2. Blood in the stools

Blood in the stools can have several different causes. If the blood is bright red, it may come from haemorrhoids or piles (swollen blood vessels) in your back passage or polyps.

However, bright red, dark red, or black blood can be a sign of bowel cancer so it’s important to tell your doctor if you notice blood in your stools so they can find out what’s causing it.

3. Constant pain in your tummy or back passage

If pain is felt during bowel cancer, the site of the pain can vary – but it’s often described as a vague discomfort or dull ache around the areas of your tummy and/or back passage. Pain may be intermittent or constant and may be provoked by eating, affecting appetite.

Persistent bloating, gas, and swelling of the tummy can also be signs of bowel cancer.

4. Feeling that your bowels don’t empty fully

The presence of a tumour in the bowel can lead to the feeling that your bowel won’t empty completely. This can be uncomfortable and you may feel a constant urge to go to the toilet.

5. Weakness or excessive tiredness for no obvious reason

Fatigue is one of the most common symptoms of bowel cancer but it’s often overlooked.

If polyps or tumours bleed into the digestive tract, the loss of iron over time can cause iron-deficiency anaemia – the symptoms of which are often weakness and/or excessive tiredness.

6. Unexplained weight loss

When it comes to bowel cancer, unexplained weight loss isn’t as common a symptom as some of the others in this list – but it’s important to speak to your GP if you’ve lost weight and you don’t know why.

Because bowel cancer can cause pain, gas, bloating, and swelling of the tummy, you may not always feel like eating, which can affect your weight.

To find out more about spotting the symptoms of bowel cancer, you might want to have a watch of the video below

Experiencing one or more of the symptoms above doesn’t necessarily mean that you have bowel cancer. Other health issues can present similar symptoms. But, regardless, if you have any of these symptoms or you just don’t feel right, you should make an appointment with your GP.

It’s worth keeping a diary of your symptoms to help you explain them to your doctor. It’s also important to be persistent – you may need to visit the doctor more than once if your symptoms don’t go away.

To keep track of your symptoms, you may want to download and use the symptoms diary from Bowel Cancer UK.

And last but certainly not least – never ignore your symptoms or feel embarrassed about seeking help and advice. Doctors see people with bowel problems all the time and, generally speaking, the earlier you get a diagnosis, the easier it is to treat. So, it’s never a waste of anyone’s time.

What are the risk factors for bowel cancer?

What are the risk factors for bowel cancer

Your risk of developing bowel cancer can be influenced by various different factors including age, genetics, and lifestyle.

According to Cancer Research UK, factors that can increase your risk include…

Age

More than nine in 10 cases of bowel cancer develop in people over 50 and six in 10 in people aged 75 and over. This is why it’s so important to make sure you take part in screenings once eligible.

Family history

Having a first-degree relative (a parent, brother or sister, son or daughter) with bowel cancer can raise your risk of developing it. The risk increases further if you have more than one relative with bowel cancer or a first-degree relative who was diagnosed at a young age (under 45).

There are also two inherited rare genetic conditions that can lead to bowel cancer:

  • familial adenomatous (FAP) – which triggers the growth of non-cancerous polyps inside the bowel. There’s a high risk that at least one of these polyps can become cancerous over time, and most people with FAP will have bowel cancer by the time they’re 50. Due to this high risk, doctors often advise having the large bowel removed before the age of 25.

If you’re concerned about the impact that genetics or family history may have on your risk of bowel cancer, then you should speak to your doctor.

Diet

According to Cancer Research UK, around 13 in 100 bowel cancer cases are linked to eating red or processed meat. This includes sausages, salami, bacon, chicken nuggets, canned meat or any meat that has been treated to add flavour or preserve it.

According to the government website, you can help to lower your risk of developing bowel cancer by cutting down your intake of red or processed meat to no more than 70g per day. To give you an idea of what this might look like, one rasher of back bacon is about 25g, one sausage 60g, one medium steak is roughly 115g, and one cooked medium pork chop is about 120g.

Eating too little fibre also causes around 30 in 100 bowel cancer cases. To find out more about how to get more fibre in your diet (such as choosing wholegrain breakfast cereals and swapping to brown rice, pasta, and bread), have a read of this information from the NHS.

Being overweight or obese

Obesity can cause bowel cancer, with around 11 in 100 cases in the UK linked to being obese or overweight (having a body mass index of 30 or higher).

If you need help and support with losing weight, it’s important to make an appointment with your doctor. There are also plenty of tips and information in the diet and nutrition section of our website.

Exercise

Research shows that there is a lower incidence of bowel cancer in people who are physically active.

If you’d like to incorporate more exercise into your routine, you can visit the fitness and exercise section of our website.

Smoking and drinking

Both smoking and drinking can increase the risk of bowel cancer. Around 6% of bowel cancer cases in the UK are linked to drinking and 7% are linked to smoking, with the risk increasing with the number of cigarettes smoked each day.

For help giving up smoking, you can download the free NHS Quit Smoking app (download on iOS / download on Android). Or for more support options, visit the NHS website.

You can also find information about getting support with cutting down or stopping drinking on the NHS website, which includes advice on accessing alcohol support services in your area.

Previous cancer

If you’ve already had bowel cancer in the past, you’re at an increased risk of getting it again.

You also have a slightly increased risk of developing bowel cancer if you’ve had another type of cancer. Your GP will be able to offer guidance and support on how to manage these risks.

Digestive disorders

Certain digestive conditions, such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis may put you at a higher risk of developing bowel cancer if you’ve lived with them for more than 10 years.

Therefore, if you have one of these conditions, you will usually be invited for regular checkups to look for signs of bowel cancer around 10 years after your symptoms first appear – with the frequency of examinations increasing the longer that you live with the condition.

If you’ve had a digestive disorder for more than 10 years but haven’t been attending regular check ups, then you should speak to your doctor.

Final thoughts…

Thinking and talking about cancer can be scary for almost all of us. But it’s important that this doesn’t stop us from taking the relevant steps to look after our health.

As we’ve already said, when diagnosed at its earliest stage, 92% of people with bowel cancer will survive the disease for five years or more – compared with 10% when the disease is diagnosed at the latest stage.

Therefore, in addition to taking preventative measures – like attending regular screenings and eating a healthy, balanced diet – it’s crucial you don’t feel embarrassed about or ignore symptoms, and that you speak to a doctor right away if you have any concerns.

For more information and support, you can also visit the websites of Bowel Cancer UK and The Bobby Moore Fund.