Bowel cancer is one of the most common types of cancer diagnosed in the UK and is a general term for cancer that begins in the large bowel.
Two studies of the disease in European and high-income countries have now found that more young people under 50 are being diagnosed with bowel cancer, with a sharp rise in rates in 20 to 29-year-olds.
But what is bowel cancer and what are the common signs and symptoms?
Although bowel cancer is a general term for cancer that begins in the large bowel, depending on where the cancer starts, bowel cancer is sometimes called colon or rectal cancer.
Who is at risk?
Although it's not known exactly what causes bowel cancer, there are a number of things that can increase your risk.
The NHS notes the following as factors which can increase your risk of developing bowel cancer:
- Age – almost 9 in 10 cases of bowel cancer occur in people aged 60 or over
- Diet – a diet high in red or processed meats and low in fibre can increase your risk
- Weight – bowel cancer is more common in people who are overweight or obese
- Exercise – being inactive increases your risk of getting bowel cancer
- Alcohol and smoking – a high alcohol intake and smoking may increase your chances of getting bowel cancer
- Family history – having a close relative (mother or father, brother or sister) who developed bowel cancer under the age of 50 puts you at a greater lifetime risk of developing the condition; screening is offered to people in this situation, and you should discuss this with your GP
Rise in bowel cancer rates in younger people
Although bowel cancer mainly strikes people over 60, health charities are now afraid that many cases in younger people aren’t being caught in time because they don’t fit the typical patient profile.
Every year over 2,500 younger people are diagnosed with bowel cancer in the UK and while this is only around six per cent of those diagnosed, the number is slowly increasing, according to Bowel Cancer UK.
Although researchers are not clear why this is happening, they explain that obesity and poor diet could be factors and experts are now urging doctors not to ignore symptoms in young people.
Some people also have an increased risk of bowel cancer because they have another condition, such as extensive ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease in the colon for more than 10 years.
Symptoms to look out for
The three main symptoms of bowel cancer are:
- Persistent blood in the stools – that occurs for no obvious reason or is associated with a change in bowel habit
- A persistent change in your bowel habit – which usually means going more often, with looser stools
- Persistent lower abdominal (tummy) pain, bloating or discomfort – that's always caused by eating and may be associated with loss of appetite or significant unintentional weight loss
Constipation, where you pass harder stools less often, is rarely caused by serious bowel conditions.
However, while these symptoms can be an indication of bowel cancer, it may not always be the case so it is important to visit your GP.
In some cases, bowel cancer can stop digestive waste passing through the bowel, which is known as a bowel obstruction.
Symptoms of a bowel obstruction can include:
- Intermittent, and occasionally severe, abdominal pain – this is always provoked by eating
- Unintentional weight loss – with persistent abdominal pain
- Constant swelling of the tummy – with abdominal pain
- Vomiting – with constant abdominal swelling
If you suspect your bowel is obstructed, you should see your GP quickly as a bowel obstruction is a medical emergency. If this isn't possible, go to the A&E department of your nearest hospital.
When to seek medical advice
If you have one or more of the symptoms of bowel cancer, and they persist for more than four weeks, you should see your GP.
Your doctor may decide to:
- Carry out a simple examination of your tummy and bottom to make sure you have no lumps
- Arrange for a simple blood test to check for iron deficiency anaemia – this can indicate whether there's any bleeding from your bowel that you haven't been aware of
- Arrange for you to have a simple test in hospital to make sure there's no serious cause of your symptoms
The NHS website advises that you make sure you see your doctor if your symptoms persist or keep coming back after stopping treatment, regardless of their severity or your age.
Visit the NHS website for more information on bowel cancer.