In honour of Bowel Cancer UK's 'Step Up for 30' initiative and 'Cancer Survivors' Day' (both of which take place this month), we've prepared this short guide to bowel cancer symptoms, tests and at-risk groups.
1. Who does bowel cancer effect?
- About 1 in 20 people will get bowel cancer during their lifetime
- 90% of people with bowel cancer are 60+ years of age
- Nearly 60% of bowel cancer diagnoses involve people aged 70+
- People with a high BMI are 33% more likely to develop bowel cancer
- Having ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease for many years can increase bowel cancer risk by 70%
- Diabetes and HPV are also thought to increase bowel cancer risk, though studies into this are ongoing
- Smoking and excessive drinking both increase bowel cancer risk by 10% respectively
2. What are potential bowel cancer symptoms?
Bowel cancer is slow-growing, and the symptoms can be attributed to other conditions, so it can be difficult to spot.
- Changing bowel habits: Needing to use the loo more regularly and producing looser stools
- Blood in stools: Providing haemorrhoids can be discounted as the cause, this warrants investigating
- Abdominal pain: Bloating/discomfort after eating, possibly leading to an eating aversion/weight loss
If you notice any of these symptoms, speak to your doctor about having some checks.
3. Bowel cancer screening regimen and test types
The NHS provides bowel cancer screening tests at regular intervals, depending on your age. There are two main test types for diagnosing bowel cancer:
- Home testing kit: As the name suggests, this is a simple test you can do at home. The test involves gathering a few stool samples and sending them to a specialist, who'll test for the presence of blood.
- Hospital tests: Your doctor will carry out these tests, including a digital rectal examination (DRE), abdominal examination, blood test and potentially a flexible sigmoidoscopy and/or colonoscopy.
If your doctor confirms that you have bowel cancer, they will want to check to see whether the cancer has spread. They are likely to arrange a CT scan of your abdomen and chest, as well as a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan of your organs.
Under the current screening model, you'll have to come in for a one-off bowel scope screening test (providing it's available locally) soon after you turn 55. Between the ages of 60 and 74, you'll need to send in a home testing kit roughly every two years.
Then, from the age of 75 onwards, you can have a voluntary screening by phoning the bowel cancer screening helpline and requesting a home testing kit every two years.
Don't ignore bowel cancer symptoms; the sooner you act, the more likely it is that your treatment will have the desired effect.