Bowel cancer symptoms: ‘Alternating bouts of constipation and diarrhoea’ could be a sign

Bowel cancer symptoms explained by Doctor Richard Roope

Bowel cancer symptoms can be subtle as they don’t necessarily make you feel ill, says the NHS. But one of the main signs to look out for is a persistent change in bowel habit. This can include pooing more often, with looser, runnier poos and sometimes tummy (abdominal) pain.

Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust goes into more detail: “There may be increasing constipation, or perhaps alternating bouts of constipation and diarrhoea. There may be blood or mucus in the stools.”

It continues: “A feeling that you haven’t completely emptied your bowels is quite common if the tumour is in the rectum. This can be uncomfortable and you may constantly feel the urge to go to the toilet.”

“You may feel a colicky type pain, or vague discomfort in your abdomen. You may also feel generally unwell, for example listless or tired, because you have been losing blood from the bowel and may have become anaemic (lack of red blood cells).

“If your symptoms have lasted six or more weeks, including bleeding from the rectum, you need to see a specialist.”

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It’s important to note not all these symptoms are signs of bowel cancer.

They can be caused by other common conditions that can be treated or controlled by your GP, such as constipation, diarrhoea, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and Crohn’s disease.

Blood in poo is often a symptom of piles (haemorrhoids), particularly fit’s bright red, fresh blood.,

Cancer Research UK explains: “Piles are like swollen veins in the back passage. These veins are fragile and can easily get damaged when you pass a bowel motion, causing a little bleeding.

“Blood from higher up in the bowel doesn’t look bright red. It goes dark red or black and can make your bowel motions look like tar.

“This type of bleeding can be a sign of cancer higher up the bowel. Or it could be from a bleeding stomach ulcer for example.”

The charity says the symptoms of bowel cancer in men and women can also include:

  • A lump that your doctor can feel in your back passage or tummy, more commonly on the right side
  • Losing weight
  • Tiredness and breathlessness caused by a lower than normal level of blood cells.

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland people over the age of 60 are invited to take part in bowel cancer screening.

In Scotland, screening starts from the age of 50.

The screening programmes in the UK use home tests which look for hidden blood in poo.

As long as you are registered with a GP and within eligible screening age range a test will be automatically posted to you.

There are benefits to bowel cancer screening, says Bowel Cancer UK.

Taking part in bowel cancer screening lowers your risk of dying from bowel cancer, and screening can pick up cancers at an early stage, when there is a good chance of successful treatment.

If bowel cancer is diagnosed at the earliest stage, more than nine in ten people will be successfully treated

Screening can also find non-cancerous growths (polyps) in the bowel that may develop into cancer in the future. Removing these polyps can reduce your risk of getting bowel cancer

But there are some risks of bowel cancer screening.

The charity warns: “Cancer may be missed if it was not bleeding when you took the test. The screening test works by finding traces of blood, which may be from a cancer

“Screening may give a false positive result. This means that you may get an abnormal result when you don’t have cancer. Other medical problems and some food and medicines may give a false positive result. This can cause worry and can lead to other tests, such as a colonoscopy. Your screening test will come with information about what may affect the test results.

“Bowel cancer can develop in the two years between your screening tests. Speak to your GP if you notice any symptoms or are worried about bowel cancer at any time.”

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