Warning signs of bowel cancer

Adele Roberts recently took to Instagram to reveal she’d been diagnosed with bowel cancer. The radio DJ, 42, is due to undergo surgery to remove a tumour.

Bowel cancer (also known as colorectal cancer) is the third most common type of newly diagnosed cancer in Australia with more than 15,000 cases diagnosed each year.

The median age at diagnosis is 70.7 years, but bowel cancer can happen at any age – including in your 20s, 30s and early 40s as occurred with Ms Roberts.

It is treatable though, and as Ms Roberts says in her post: “Early detection can save your life”.

Explaining her own diagnosis, she wrote: “For a while now I’ve been struggling with my digestion. Thanks to a conversation I had with my dad a few years back I went to my GP for a check-up. I’ll be honest, I was embarrassed but I also knew that it could be something serious. So I went just in case. I didn’t think anything of it at first and just assumed it might be food sensitivity. After a few phone calls I was sent for some examinations and checks. I was then diagnosed with bowel cancer …”

Read: Navigating cancer: A guide for the newly diagnosed

Ms Roberts says: “Please make sure you get checked out if you have any concerns. The sooner you’re able to see your GP or talk to someone, the sooner you can get help. Sadly, it can affect anyone, at any age, any time. It doesn’t discriminate.”

So what are the possible bowel cancer symptoms? We asked an expert to talk us through them.

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 GP Dr Elizabeth Rogers.

“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.”

Read: Blood in stool can mean cancer, haemorrhoids, diverticulitis or ulcers

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 Dr 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 Dr 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 such as 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, Dr 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.

Read: Struggling with IBS? You are not alone

Are some people at higher risk of bowel cancer?
Dr 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. Dr 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 checked
That said, the disease can impact people who are fit and healthy too – Ms Roberts is known for her love of fitness and is a keen runner. So everybody should get things checked out if they have any symptoms.

Were you aware of those warning signs? Is bowel cancer on your radar because of lifestyle or family connections? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.

Written by Abi Jackson