Visiting your GP
See your GP if you have any symptoms of a bowel problem or if you're worried about a close family history of bowel cancer. Even if you've taken part in bowel cancer screening, you should still report any symptoms to your GP as soon as possible.
Don't worry about wasting your GP's time. If you're worried that something is wrong, they'll want to see you. If you've already seen your GP but you're still getting symptoms, go back to see them again. Your GP may be able to put your mind at rest. If you do have a medical problem, the earlier you get a diagnosis, the better the chance of successful treatment and cure.
Before you see your GP
Before you go to your doctor, make a note of any changes in your bowel habits or any other symptoms. Keeping a diary of your symptoms can help you remember the details when you're speaking to your GP. See your GP within three weeks of noticing any change in your bowels. If you have any bleeding from the opening of your back passage (anus) you should see your GP straight away.
Your GP appointment
During the appointment, your GP will ask you some questions about your symptoms. You can get ready for your appointment by thinking about your answers to some of the following questions.
- When did you first notice your symptoms?
- Do your symptoms come and go?
- Have you noticed any blood in your bowel movements (poo) or on the toilet paper?
- Do you have any pain when you go to the toilet?
- Do you have pain in your stomach area?
- Does your stomach feel more full than usual (bloated)?
- Is your poo softer or harder than usual?
- Are you going to the toilet more or less often than usual?
- Do your symptoms wake you up at night?
- Have you lost any weight recently?
- Do you feel tired for no obvious reason?
- Do you feel sick or get indigestion?
Your GP may also ask you whether there have been any changes in your life recently. For example, a change in your diet, any new medicines, any stress you might be under or any recent travel abroad.
They may ask you about any other illnesses or treatment you have had.
They will also ask about any close family history. Take as much information to your appointment as you can.
- Which relatives have had cancer?
- How old were they when they were diagnosed?
- What type of cancer did they have?
Your GP may examine you. They may feel your stomach area (abdomen) to see if there are any lumps or tender areas. They may also do a digital rectal examination (DRE). This involves putting a gloved finger inside the back passage (anus) to feel for any lumps. This can be uncomfortable but it shouldn’t be painful and it is over quickly.
You may also have a blood test to check for low levels of red blood cells (anaemia) and to check your liver and kidneys are working properly.
If you have symptoms of bowel cancer, your GP should arrange a test, called a faecal immunochemical test (FIT), to check for hidden blood in your poo. FIT is when a small sample of poo is taken and sent to a laboratory for testing. If blood is detected in the sample, you'll be referred to hospital for an endoscopy. There's more information about hospital referrals below.
If blood isn't detected in your poo, but you're still experiencing symptoms of bowel cancer your GP may refer you to hospital for more tests, such as further blood tests or another FIT. They'll ask you to keep an eye on things and to go back if you carry on having problems. Make sure you do go back if you continue to have symptoms or if you're still worried.
If your GP doesn't think you're at risk of bowel cancer they may not need to examine you or send you for any tests. If you're still worried about symptoms, go back to see them again or ask to see another GP.
The British Society of Gastroenterology (BSG) and the Association of Coloproctology of Great Britain and Ireland (ACPGBI) have guidelines for when GPs are recommended to refer people with suspected cancer for further testing. You could take a copy along to your GP to help you explain why you'd like to be tested. These guidelines have been accredited by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). Read the guidelines here.
If you're still worried that you haven't had the tests you need, you could contact Macmillan Cancer Support to speak to a nurse.
Referral to hospital
Your GP may refer you to see a colorectal specialist at the hospital for more tests. You'll get an urgent referral, which means you should get an appointment to either see a specialist or have more tests within two weeks.
This doesn't mean that you have cancer – most people who are referred to hospital don't have cancer. But acting quickly will give you the best chance of successful treatment if you do have cancer.
If you don't get a specialist appointment within two weeks, please ask your GP to check for you. Don't worry about wasting your GP's time – remember that your GP is there to help you and to make sure you get the right care at the right time.
You may wish to ask your GP:
- if they're sending an urgent or non-urgent referral request
- why they've chosen this referral type
- how long they think it'll be before you hear from the hospital
Page updated: October 2022
Download our symptoms diary
The symptoms diary, pioneered by Beth Purvis, supported by Coloplast and formally endorsed by the Royal College of GPs, aims to help keep track of a person’s symptoms before they visit their GP. This will give a good indication to their doctor whether they need further tests. Patients may not remember all their symptoms during the short appointment so having something written down can be useful.