The 7 signs and symptoms of bowel cancer to look out for

Over 42,000 people in the UK are diagnosed with bowel cancer (also known as colorectal or colon cancer) each year, making this the fourth most common type of cancer and the second biggest cancer killer.

Bowel cancer is most common in people aged 50+ with more than nine out of ten new cases being in this age group and six out of ten cases are diagnosed in people aged 70+2. There is an NHS bowel cancer screening programme in the UK, BUT it is only available to people aged 60 or above (50 or above in Scotland).  

Bowel cancer is increasing in younger age groups in the UK

However, bowel cancer can affect anyone of any age and data from two large studies published in 2019 from the International Cancer Benchmarking Partnership (part-funded by Cancer Research UK) found that bowel cancer rates are increasing in adults aged between 20 and 50, with bowel cancer cases in the UK increasing on average by up to 7.3% in 30 - to 39-year-olds between 2005 and 2014.  This trend has not been seen in older adults3.

Dame Deborah James and the BowelBabe campaign

Dame Deborah James, age 40, has tirelessly campaigned to raise awareness of bowel cancer and its symptoms and sadly passed away from the disease on the 29th June when her bowel cancer became terminal.   Apart from raising a staggering £6 million for Cancer Research through her BowelBabe fund, she has also been lobbying for supermarkets to show bowel cancer symptoms on toilet roll packaging. Andrex has recently announced that from this September they will put bowel cancer symptoms on 29 million packs of toilet paper.4

The Andrex announcement follows M&S’s partnership with Bowel Cancer UK announced this May which will see the high street retailer putting bowel cancer signs and symptoms on their toilet roll packaging, signage in their stores and support centres as well as a £50,000 donation to the charity’s research on bowel cancer5.  The idea came from an idea submitted by a M&S colleague who had personal experience of bowel cancer. The retailer has also called on its competitors to get involved and help save lives and break down any embarrassment about talking about the signs and symptoms of bowel cancer. Waitrose, Aldi, and Asda have recently committed to adding bowel cancer symptoms to toilet roll packaging which will come in effect this Autumn.

The campaigning by Dame Deborah James is so important in raising awareness because bowel cancer is treatable and curable, especially when diagnosed early. Almost all (98%) people with bowel cancer will survive their disease for one year or more when diagnosed at its earliest stage, compared with around 4 in 10 (44%) people when the disease is diagnosed at the latest stage.

What should you look out for, and what are the symptoms?

The same signs can also indicate other less serious conditions such as haemorrhoids (piles), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), diverticular disease, infection, or inflammatory bowel disease (ulcerative colitis/Crohn’s disease). However, if you have any of the symptoms of bowel cancer listed below you should seek the advice of your GP immediately for further tests to confirm a diagnosis.

The symptoms of bowel cancer are:

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As the disease progresses there may be other signs of bowel cancer to look out for. Bleeding may occur internally in the bowel but not be evident in the poo, leading to anaemia. This may cause:

  • Breathlessness
  • Dizziness
  • Tiredness
  • Looking pale

If the bowel cancer causes an obstruction, you may also experience the following signs and symptoms:

  • Vomiting
  • Bloating/distension – particularly in the area around your belly button.
  • Difficulty in having a poo and/or passing wind/gas

Reducing your bowel cancer risk with lifestyle changes

Did you know that more than 40% of all cancers diagnosed in the UK are attributed to lifestyle and environmental factors6 and that 42% of cancers in the UK are preventable?

For bowel cancer, 54% of cases in the UK are preventable. There is strong evidence that a diet high in red and processed meat can increase your risk of bowel cancer, so trying to reduce your consumption is therefore a great way to improve your health. The NHS has given guidelines on the amount you should eat per week,, click here to find out more.  Alcohol, smoking and being overweight or obese also increase bowel cancer risk.

There is also evidence to suggest that a diet high in fibre could help to reduce your bowel cancer risk as well as maintaining a healthy weight and being physically active.

Look at the statistics below7:

  • 28% of bowel cancer cases in the UK are caused by eating too little fibre
  • 13% of bowel cancer cases in the UK are caused by eating processed meat
  • 11% of bowel cancer cases in the UK are caused by obesity and being overweight
  • 7% of bowel cancer cases in the UK are caused by smoking
  • 6% of bowel cancer cases in the UK are caused by alcohol
  • 5% of bowel cancer cases in the UK are caused by too little physical activity

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Information on bowel cancer screening

Cancer screening has been an essential part of NHS policy to improve early cancer detection in the UK since the late 1980s, and at-home testing is currently recommended by the NHS for bowel cancer screening. BowelCheck is a bowel cancer screening test for individuals aged 45+.

BowelCheck is a Quantitative Faecal Immunochemical Test (qFIT) that looks for the quantity of human blood in the bowel motion following a simple and easy-to-use at-home collection system. This is different to other FIT tests as it measures the amount of blood and also includes a risk assessment making it more reliable than other tests. If positive, patients will require further investigation that will usually involve colonoscopy, and a telescopic examination of the large bowel.