The bowel cancer warning signs you shouldn’t ignore

Adele Roberts has said receiving treatment for bowel cancer early helped “save my life”, as she supports a campaign to raise awareness about the symptoms of the condition.

The BBC Radio 1 DJ, 44, said in October 2021 that she was undergoing treatment following her stage two diagnosis, and later had surgery to remove a tumour, and began using a stoma bag.

After announcing she was cancer-free in June last year, she is now encouraging others to speak to a professional early on if they spot any of the signs.

Roberts said: “It took me a while to pluck up the courage to call my GP at first.

“My symptoms seemed like things I could explain away. I didn’t want to be a burden to the NHS, and I was embarrassed.”

She continued: “I shouldn’t have worried. My GP took my concerns seriously, put me at ease and also offered me a home-testing kit. This meant I was able to do the test in the comfort of my own home.

“Soon after, I was diagnosed with stage 2 bowel cancer, which was very nearly developing into stage 3.

“Getting the help I needed in time helped save my life. If you’re worried, please speak to someone, early detection saves lives and it helped save mine.”

A new survey by Bowel Cancer UK has found that 38% of people cannot name any symptoms of bowel cancer.

As part of the charity’s new campaign for Bowel Cancer Awareness Month this April, they are flagging a number of the key signs, which include blood in your poo, change of bowel habits, pain or lump in your tummy, weight loss and fatigue.

Their research also showed that 59 per cent of people said that something would likely prevent them from contacting a doctor if they experienced a change in bowel habit, including difficulties getting an appointment, being too embarrassed or being too afraid that it could be something serious.

Professor Peter Johnson, national clinical director for cancer at NHS England, said: “As with all cancers, acting at the first sign of symptoms can make a big difference to how bowel cancer can be treated, and how successfully.

“You are much more likely to survive a cancer that is diagnosed early, which is why the NHS and charities like Bowel Cancer UK have run awareness campaigns about the signs to look for.

“Referrals for bowel cancer tests have been at record levels for the last 18 months, and we would encourage people to speak to a GP about any concerning symptoms: knowing what is normal for you and acting when something isn’t right can make all the difference.”

Genevieve Edwards, chief executive of Bowel Cancer UK, added: “It’s concerning that people aren’t aware of the symptoms of the UK’s second biggest cancer killer.

“Someone dies from the disease every 30 minutes in the UK, which means that in the time it takes to watch an episode of your favourite soap, one family will lose a loved one to bowel cancer.

“But it doesn’t have to be this way as it is treatable and curable, especially when diagnosed early.

“That’s why this Bowel Cancer Awareness Month we’re launching a new campaign to raise awareness of the five red flag symptoms of the disease, and asking people to take our KnowTheHigh5 quiz.”

What are the main symptoms of bowel cancer?

“It can be easy to dismiss the symptoms of bowel cancer, and people often put different bowel movements or bloating down to stuff they eat or changes in their body as they get older. However, delaying getting help can really put people at risk – like many cancers, if caught early enough, bowel cancer is curable,” says Elizabeth Rogers, associate clinical director and GP at Bupa UK.

“If you notice any blood in your poo, changes to your bowel movement, bloating or abdominal pain after eating, see your GP as soon as possible. Don’t put it off, early diagnosis really does save lives. Other symptoms include unexplained weight loss and extreme tiredness for no reason.”

Even if there isn’t blood, get things checked

Spotting signs of blood is a red flag symptom that should never be ignored. But that doesn’t mean it’s the only symptom – so even if there’s no blood, check in with your GP. “Any changes to bowel movement, bloating and abdominal pain after eating should always be checked with the doctor as soon as possible,” says Rogers.

Keep an eye on changes

When it comes to our toilet habits, what’s normal for one person may be different for another. For example, some people have more daily bowel movements while others go a lot less frequently. A helpful rule of thumb is to always get things checked if you notice changes that are unusual for you.

“I always advise people to be aware of what’s normal for them,” says Rogers, “and to ‘check-CUP for cancer’ – to check for a ‘change that is unexplained or persistent’.”

What if you’ve already got a history of dodgy digestive symptoms?

Digestive issues are extremely common and these symptoms don’t always mean bowel cancer. They can also occur due to conditions like IBS, food intolerances and inflammatory bowel disorders, for example. This can make it tricky to know when to go back to your doctor, especially if you’ve been living with gut issues for a long time. However, Rogers says it’s still important to “see your GP” if you notice any of the changes outlined above. If anything seems unusual, different, or is causing concern, go get it checked.

Are some people at higher risk of bowel cancer?

Rogers says bowel cancer is “rare before age 40” but it is possible at any age. Some people may be at higher risk, including “if you have a family history of bowel cancer, have an inherited bowel condition such as familial adenomatous polyposis, or hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer, also known as Lynch syndrome”.

People with long-term inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis, or who have a history of non-cancerous growths (polyps or adenomas) may also be more at risk. Rogers notes that other factors, such as obesity, smoking, a diet lacking in fibre and/or high in processed and red meats, and drinking too much alcohol can also be associated with higher rates of bowel cancer.

Any symptoms? Get it checked

That said, the disease can impact people who are fit and healthy too – Roberts is known for her love of fitness and being a keen runner. So everybody should get things checked out if they have any symptoms.