Symptoms of bowel cancer
Bowel cancer is a broad term for cancer that begins in the large bowel, which is made up of the colon and rectum. Bowel cancer is more common in people over the age of 50, but it can affect anyone of any age.
Symptoms of bowel cancer can include:
- Bleeding from your bottom and/or blood in your poo
- A persistent and unexplained change in bowel habit
- Unexplained weight loss
- Extreme tiredness for no obvious reason
- A pain or lump in your tummy
It's important to know that most people with these symptoms don't have bowel cancer. Other health problems can cause similar symptoms. But if you have any of these, or if things just don't feel right, go to see your GP.
You may need to visit your doctor more than once if your symptoms don't get better.
Knowing the symptoms and acting on them as quickly as possible could mean that if you do have bowel cancer, it may be diagnosed earlier when it's much easier to treat. People whose cancer is diagnosed at an early stage have a much higher chance of successful treatment than those whose cancer has become more widespread.
Don't be embarrassed and don't ignore any symptoms. Doctors are used to seeing lots of people with bowel problems.
Use our symptoms diary to record changes to your health
Keeping track of your symptoms in our diary can help you describe them to your doctor, as it can be tricky to remember or explain what you've been experiencing during a short appointment. This will give a good indication to your doctor whether you need further tests.
Our symptoms diary was pioneered by one of our supporters Beth Purvis, who sadly passed away in 2021, and is supported by Coloplast and formally endorsed by the Royal College of GPs.
More about bowel cancer symptoms
There are several possible causes of bleeding from your bottom or blood in your bowel movements (poo). Bright red blood may come from swollen blood vessels (haemorrhoids or piles) in your back passage, or polyps (non-cancerous growths). It may also be caused by bowel cancer. Dark red or black blood may come from your bowel or stomach. Tell your doctor about any bleeding so they can find out what is causing it.
Bowel cancer screening programmes in the UK test for hidden blood in poo. The test can also find polyps (non-cancerous growths), which might develop into cancer. Find out more about bowel cancer screening.
Change in bowel habit
Tell your GP if you have noticed any persistent and unexplained changes in your bowel habit, especially if you also have bleeding from your bottom. You may have looser poo and you may need to poo more often than normal. Or you may feel as though you're not going to the toilet often enough, or that you're not fully emptying your bowels.
This is less common than some of the other symptoms. Speak to your GP if you have lost weight and you don't know why. You may not feel like eating if you feel sick, bloated or if you just don't feel hungry.
Bowel cancer may lead to a lack of iron in the body, which can cause anaemia (lack of red blood cells). If you have anaemia, you are likely to feel very tired and your skin may look pale.
Pain or lump
You may have pain or a lump in your stomach area (abdomen) or back passage. See your GP if these symptoms don't go away or if they're affecting how you sleep or eat.
Sometimes, a tumour can block the bowel, causing sudden strong pains in the stomach area, bloating and feeling or being sick. This is called a bowel obstruction. You may also be unable to empty your bowels or pass wind.
If you think you have a blocked bowel, see your GP straight away or go to a hospital accident and emergency department.
What else could it be?
Most people with these symptoms do not have bowel cancer, but if you have any of these symptoms or if things don't feel right, visit your GP. Your symptoms could be caused by other common conditions that can be treated or controlled by your doctor, such as:
- Piles (haemorrhoids)
- Anal fissures
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Diverticular disease
- Crohn's disease
- Ulcerative colitis
Find out more about these conditions on nhs.uk.
We don't know what causes most bowel cancers, but we do know that some factors increase your risk of getting the disease. If you have a strong family history of bowel cancer or want to find out ways to reduce your risk of the disease, read more here.
More about bowel cancer
Find all our up-to-date and reliable information about bowel cancer, including risk factors, screening, diagnosis, treatment and living with and beyond bowel cancer.
Support for you
We provide support for everyone affected by bowel cancer and we're here for you at every step. Find out how we can help.
We're the UK's leading bowel cancer charity and we're determined to save lives and improve the quality of life of everyone affected by bowel cancer. Our vision is a future where nobody dies of the disease. Find out more about our work.
Page reviewed: July 2022