Bowel cancer: Dr Amir explains symptoms to look out for
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Bowel cancer is a general term for cancer that begins in the large bowel, which is made up of the colon, rectum and anus. Bowel cancer is one of the most common types of cancer diagnosed in the UK. Like all forms of cancer, spotting it early improves survival outcomes.
Unfortunately, the symptoms of bowel cancer are often vague, hamstringing efforts to pick it up.
As a general rule of thumb, persistent changes in bowel habits can signal bowel cancer.
To put it simply, changes in the way you poo are a red flag.
The British Council explains: “The poo may change in size or shape, because some colorectal cancers present with elongated or thinned poo, as the cancer creates an obstruction that the poo has to push through.”
The organisation continues: “Think of it like squishing icing on a cake. If the inside space of the tube is smaller, the icing comes out thinner. When the inside of the colon is narrowed, the poo becomes slimmer.”
Another important sign that warrants a trip to your doctor is finding blood or mucus in your poo.
According to Macmillan Cancer Support, the blood may be bright red or dark.
Other signs include:
- Unexplained weight loss
- Pain in your tummy (abdomen) or back passage
- Feeling that you have not emptied your bowel properly after you poo
- Unexplained tiredness, dizziness or breathlessness
- A lower than normal level of red blood cells (anaemia).
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When to see your GP
The NHS says: “See a GP if you have any of the symptoms of bowel cancer for three weeks or more.”
The health body continues: “When you first see a GP, they’ll ask about your symptoms and whether you have a family history of bowel cancer.”
According to the health body, they’ll usually carry out a simple examination of your bottom, known as a digital rectal examination (DRE), and examine your tummy (abdomen).
This is a useful way of checking whether there are any lumps in your tummy or bottom (rectum).
Are you at risk?
The exact cause of bowel cancer is unknown. However, research has shown several factors may make you more likely to develop it.
Having one or more risk factors doesn’t mean that you will definitely get bowel cancer.
The strongest evidence to date has linked red and processed meat to an increased risk of bowel cancer.
According to Cancer Research UK, “it is estimated that around 13 out of 100 bowel cancer cases (around 13 percent) in the UK are linked to eating these meats”.
Processed meat is any meat that has been treated to preserve it and/or add flavour – for example, bacon, salami, sausages, canned meat or chicken nuggets. And a portion is about two sausages or three slices of ham.
The Government recommends that people eating more than 90g of red and processed meat a day should reduce it to 70g or less. 70g is the cooked weight. This is about the same as two sausages.
Conversely, eating lots of fibre reduces your risk of bowel cancer, says Cancer Research UK.
“Eating too little fibre causes around 30 in 100 bowel cancer cases (around 30 percent) in the UK.”
To get more fibre in your diet, the charity recommends:
- Swapping to brown rice, pasta or bread
- Swapping your snack to low calorie popcorn rather than crisps
- Choosing wholegrain breakfast cereals
- Eating more fruit and vegetables high in fibre, such as peas and raspberries.
Eating well can help you to maintain a healthy weight, which provides some protection against bowel cancer.
Keeping active can help you to stay trim.
In fact, “strong evidence shows that people who are more physically active have a lower risk of bowel cancer”, adds Cancer Research UK.
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