Bowel cancer symptoms: your questions answered
Written by our Head of Support and Information Charlotte Dawson R.G.N.
Almost 42,000 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer every year in the UK, making it the fourth most common cancer. Nearly everyone diagnosed at the earliest stage will survive bowel cancer but this drops significantly as the disease develops. Being aware of the key symptoms and visiting your GP if things don’t feel right can help increase chances of an early diagnosis.
What are the signs and symptoms of bowel cancer?
The 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
Most people with these symptoms don’t have bowel cancer. Other health problems can cause similar symptoms. But if you have one or more of these please go to see your GP.
If it isn’t bowel cancer what else could be causing my symptoms?
There are many common conditions that can affect the health of our bowels, and many have symptoms similar to bowel cancer. These conditions include (but aren’t limited to) piles (haemorrhoids), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), anal fissures, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), diverticular disease, and diarrhea.
Although you might feel embarrassed to talk about them, it is important to get checked out by your doctor if you notice anything unusual. In most cases, the diagnosis will not be bowel cancer, but if you have symptoms and are worried, make an appointment to talk to your GP.
What if I only have one of the symptoms, should I still get checked out?
Don’t worry about wasting your GP’s time. If you are worried that something is wrong, they will want to see you. 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.
I didn’t have any of the ‘red flag’ symptoms of bowel cancer but I was diagnosed anyway – why?
It’s important to remember that not everyone with bowel cancer will have one of the more common symptoms. Some people will have vague or non-specific signs, and some won’t have any symptoms at all.
We encourage everyone to think about what’s normal for you. If you are worried about any symptoms or if things just don’t feel right, you should visit your GP.
I’ve gone to my GP with symptoms but he/she has told me they aren’t due to bowel cancer and hasn’t referred me, what can I do?
GPs will see lots of people with bowel symptoms, most of whom won’t have bowel cancer. The challenge for the GP is therefore identifying those patients who do need to have further tests or investigations for a potentially serious disease like bowel cancer.
If your symptoms carry on or get worse after you’ve visited your GP, it’s important to go back again.
It could be useful to make a note of any changes in your bowels or any other symptoms. You could also get ready for your appointment by thinking about the answers to some of the questions your GP is likely to ask you. Click here for more information on what to expect when visiting your GP.
I’m worried about my symptoms. Can I buy a test?
It is important to remember that screening is for people with no symptoms. If you are worried about any symptoms, you should visit your doctor.
Self-test kits you can buy over the counter will vary in quality, so the results could be misleading. Before NHS screening programmes, like bowel cancer screening, are implemented, the NHS will thoroughly consider all the available evidence and consider whether the benefits outweigh any risks.
We are not able to recommend or comment on any individual tests without a full review by independent experts. In the meantime, we recommend you speak to your GP.
For more information, the NHS has written a leaflet called ‘Thinking about having a private screening test? which you might find useful.
I have symptoms but I’m under 50, what are the chances of it being bowel cancer?
Bowel cancer is more common in people over 50, but it can affect anyone of any age. Every year in the UK around 2,500 people under 50 will be diagnosed with the disease. We encourage everyone to think about what’s normal for you.
Want to know more?
- Watch our video on bowel cancer symptoms
- Order your free bowel cancer symptoms guides to share with family and friends
- Read other people’s experiences of bowel cancer