Beating bowel cancer together

What happens when you visit your GP with bowel symptoms?

Our Medical Advisor, Professor of Primary Care Diagnostics and GP, Professor Willie Hamilton, talks us through what to do if you’re worried about bowel symptoms, what to expect when you visit your doctor, how to make the most of your appointment and the tests that might be involved.

What advice would you give someone worried about bowel symptoms?

We all get bowel symptoms from time to time. The key thing is noticing new or unusual symptoms, especially increased frequency of going to the toilet. Although there are many possible causes for a change in your bowels, a persistent and unexplained change should lead you to see your GP. This is even more so, if there are other symptoms, such as loss of weight, or unusual tiredness. Clearly, if there are several other members of your family with a ‘dodgy tummy’ you’ll probably want to see if it goes by itself first.

What is the doctor likely to ask when you go to see them?

The doctor will want to know about how long the symptom has lasted, and how severe it is. They’ll ask about blood – whether you’ve noticed blood in your bowels recently. They will probably ask about loss of appetite or weight, and whether you’ve had any abdominal pain.

Most GPs will ask if you have any ideas what may be causing the problem – this allows you to mention if other family members are affected, and also ‘opens the door’ to a discussion if you are worried about the small chance of cancer. It’s much easier as a GP, once you know the patient’s worries. The GP may also ask about your medications – several medicines, such as antibiotics, can send your bowels haywire.

Is there anything people can do in advance to help make the most of their appointment?

The main thing is to be willing to answer questions about your bowels. Of course, the ice has already been broken by you starting off describing your bowels are misbehaving. It’s also easier if you have simple loose clothing which you can remove easily, as you GP will probably want to examine your tummy. We love seeing well-dressed patients, but this isn’t the right time!

What tests are involved?

If your GP thinks there is a chance of cancer, even a small one, they have two main options. If the risk is really quite small, they can give you a kit which looks for hidden blood in your poo, which you complete at home. This is called the faecal immunochemical test (FIT).

If the chance of cancer is a bit higher (or if your FIT results suggest further tests are needed) then the usual next step is a colonoscopy. A colonoscopy uses a small thin tube with a camera to look inside your large bowel. There are other X-ray tests which can be used, if for some reason a colonoscopy isn’t suitable.

How long will it take to get the results?

Colonoscopy results are immediate, though if the specialist takes a sample during the test, this needs special preparation and analysis, which takes a week or so.


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