Bowel cancer is the third most common cancer worldwide: in the developed world 1 million cases are diagnosed annually and it causes 600,000 deaths. In the UK, 1 in every 20 people develop it and about half will die from it. Bowel cancer is uncommon in those younger than 50 unless there is a family history of the disease, or another associated cause. It is a common disease but most people do not have it, even with bowel symptoms! It has been said that it is difficult to determine the symptoms of bowel cancer but an experienced doctor can readily recognise symptom patterns that are high-risk and arrange appropriate investigations
High-risk symptom patterns are those that are “new,” and “persistent,” as well as satisfying other criteria to do with the frequency and consistency of bowel motions and of rectal bleeding. When considering rectal bleeding, the most important question is whether or not there are associated anal symptoms, i.e. symptoms of piles, (soreness, pain or lumps at the bottom). It is much more important if rectal bleeding is NOT associated with a sore bottom although your doctor should always examine your bottom to be safe.
The other most important bowel symptom is to do with a change in the bowel motions from a normal habit (even if that is a little irregular) to a pattern of bowel actions that are either looser than normal, or more frequent, or both. If this symptom is associated with bleeding from the bottom, especially in an older person, it is particularly important.
Points to remember:
1. Important bowel symptoms are those that are NEW and PERSISTENT for more than six weeks.
2. Rectal bleeding that is NEW, PERSISTENT and NOT associated with symptoms from the bottom is very important, especially when associated with looser or more frequent stools.
3. A NEW & PERSISTENT change in bowel function to looser or more frequent stools is important in those aged more than 60.