One of the factors that makes bowel cancer diagnosis so challenging for us as gastrointestinal specialists is that people sometimes feel too embarrassed to get their symptom checked out until the disease is well advanced. This can make it much harder to treat and the chances of survival are lower.

We use the term “dying of embarrassment” in our everyday speech to express a feeling of acute discomfort. But, in some cases, it is literally true.

If you have any of the symptoms that might indicate bowel cancer, here are some reasons why it’s important to visit your doctor as soon as possible. 

Increase your chance of survival:

Most bowel cancers are treatable if diagnosed at an early stage. In fact, nine out of ten people will survive for more than five years if they receive a diagnosis before the cancer has spread. Once it spreads outside the colon or rectum, survival rates are far lower. According to the American Cancer Society, only about 4 out of 10 colorectal cancers are found at an early stage.

There are four stages to bowel cancer:

  • Stage one: the cancer is contained within the lining of the bowel or rectum
  • Stage two: the cancer has spread beyond the layer of muscle surrounding the bowel. It may have penetrated the surface of the bowel or nearby organs.
  • Stage three: the cancer has spread into nearby lymph nodes
  • Stage four: the cancer has spread into other parts of the body, such as the liver.

Surgery is the main treatment for people with early stage bowel cancer. But some people may also have chemotherapy and radiotherapy to shrink the cancer before surgery. 

If you have advanced bowel cancer, you might be offered chemotherapy or radiotherapy. Sometimes you can also have surgery to remove as much cancer as possible and help with your symptoms

Peace of mind:

Living with the worry that we might have a serious health condition is exhausting and not good for our mental wellbeing.

Of course, just because you have some of the symptoms associated with bowel cancer it doesn’t mean you have the disease but you will not know for sure until you receive a diagnosis.

The sooner you see your doctor, the sooner you will know what is causing your symptoms and, if necessary, you can begin a course of treatment. If you don’t have cancer, you can look at other lifestyle choices that might be causing your symptoms.

Preventative screening:

Colorectal polyps that cause cancer can take 10 to 15 years to develop.

Regular screening can often prevent colorectal cancer by finding and removing polyps before they have the chance to turn into cancer. Screening can also find colorectal cancer early, when it might be easier to treat.

If you are between the ages of 50 and 74 you will receive a bowel screening kit through the post. This is the most effective way to detect bowel cancer in its earliest stages.

It can pick up blood in your poo which you may not have noticed and which might be a sign of bowel cancer. It is a straightforward test that could make a major difference to your future health and wellbeing.

Symptoms to look out for

The early signs of bowel cancer are hidden so it’s important to be aware of your bowel habits and to visit your doctor if you notice any of the following:

  • Repeated bleeding from your bottom or blood in your poo.
  • Changes in your poo that have gone on for more than a month without going back to normal.
  • Diarrhoea or watery poo sometimes interspersed with periods of constipation.
  • Severe pain in your stomach that is worse after eating and doesn’t go away.
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Feeling tired and washed out.

The only way to truly diagnose bowel cancer is to get tested by a gastroenterologist. There are a number of examinations that can accurately diagnose bowel cancer and assess the stage of development.

Find out more about the tests used to diagnose bowel cancer, including about the colonoscopy, which is the most thorough examination for detecting bowel cancer.

Working with a specialist that can promptly diagnose and monitor your symptoms, will give you the best chance to get back to feeling your best.