What Are The Symptoms Of Bowel Cancer – And How Do You Treat It?

Bowel cancer is the UK’s fourth most common cancer.

BBC newsreader George Alagiah, 64, has revealed his bowel cancer has spread to his lungs, six years after first being diagnosed with the illness.

The cancer had spread to his liver and lymph nodes, he previously said, but in a new interview with The Times he recalled how doctors told him in April it is now in his lungs.

“My doctors have never used the word ‘chronic’ or ‘cure’ about my cancer,” he said. “They’ve never used the word ‘terminal’ either. I’ve always said to my oncologist, ‘Tell me when I need to sort my affairs out’, and he’s not told me that, but what he did tell me is that the cancer is now in a third organ. It is in my lungs.”

What is bowel cancer?

Bowel cancer is commonly used to describe cancer in the bowel, however depending on where the cancer starts, it can be called other things – such as colon or rectal cancer.

It usually starts as a small polyp in the lining of the bowel. If spotted early and removed, the cancer can’t develop. However, if a polyp goes undetected then it eventually grows and turns cancerous.

Bowel cancer is the UK’s fourth most common cancer and second biggest cancer killer with more than 16,000 people dying from the disease every year.

Yet awareness is limited. A poll of 4,000 UK adults commissioned by Bowel Cancer UK found more than a third (35 per cent) of people couldn’t name any symptoms of the disease, with men less likely than women to recognise the signs.

Risk factors

There are a number of possible factors which can increase a person’s risk of bowel cancer, these include: old age, a diet high in red or processed meats and low in fibre, being overweight or obese, not exercising enough, drinking alcohol and smoking, or having a family history of the disease.

Symptoms

While some people don’t have any symptoms, others might experience:

  • Changes in bowel habits – for example, going to the toilet more often or a change in the consistency and colour of your stools.
  • A lump in your abdomen which doesn’t go away.
  • Unexplained weight loss.
  • Pain in the abdomen.
  • Red or dark-coloured blood in your faeces.

Unfortunately, some of these symptoms can be confused with other health problems – piles, for example, or eating something that doesn’t agree with you. If you experience any of the above, speak to your GP.

Diagnosis

Initially a doctor will examine your stomach to check for any lumps in your abdomen. They will also perform a digital rectal examination (DRE) which helps them identify whether there are any lumps in the back passage. Overall, the tests should take less than a minute.

“Further hospital tests include using medical instruments to check inside the colon or bowel,” said Dr Nitin Shori, NHS GP and medical director of the Pharmacy2U Online Doctor service.

Treatment

Surgery is the most common treatment for bowel cancer. According to Dr Shori, if the cancer is caught quickly enough, it can be possible to remove a small part of the colon. Patients often also require chemotherapy or radiotherapy, he said.

If the cancer is detected early, treatment can cure bowel cancer and prevent it from coming back. Unfortunately, a complete cure isn’t always possible and there’s sometimes a risk that the cancer could recur at a later stage.