Deborah James discusses 'scary' bowel cancer symptoms

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Bowel cancer claims more than 16,000 lives a year and dismissing the initial warning signs contributes to this dismal statistic. Partly what stymies early detection is the subtlety of symptoms: they do not necessarily make you feel ill. However, ongoing research attempts to provide a more concrete understanding of the symptoms to spot.

Amid rising incidence of bowel cancer in young people, researchers in a study published in the ANZ Journal of Surgery sought to characterise the nature of “altered” bowel habits in young patients who are diagnosed with bowel cancer.

A retrospective audit was conducted of adult patients younger than 45 years admitted under a Colorectal Surgery unit (Dandenong Hospital, Victoria) from 2011 to 2019 for the resection of colorectal cancer.

Researchers compared the patients’ self-characterisation of their bowel habits (from the medical record) with clinical and pathological data.

A total of 75 patients were identified, aged between 18 and 45 years.

Forty-two (56 percent) presented with altered bowel habit (irregular bowel habit, constipation and diarrhoea.

“Constipation approached significance in association with left-sided colonic cancer”, the researchers wrote.

They continued: “Fatigue approached significance in association with right-sided colonic cancers, which were less likely to present with bleeding or constipation, and approached significance in being less likely to present with diarrhoea.”

According to the researchers, rectal cancers were more likely to present with bleeding.

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“Constipation was associated with left-sided colonic cancers, while right-sided colonic cancers were less likely to present with either constipation or diarrhoea,” the researchers concluded.

“Our findings reinforce the need for clinicians to consider colorectal cancer as a differential diagnosis in young patients with altered bowel habits, or in patients with fatigue in the absence of specific bowel symptoms. Further prospective research is needed to further define bowel habits in this cohort.”

How to respond

The NHS says: “See a GP if you have any of the symptoms of bowel cancer for three weeks or more.”

According to the health body, when you first see a GP, they’ll ask about your symptoms and whether you have a family history of bowel cancer.

“They’ll usually carry out a simple examination of your bottom, known as a digital rectal examination (DRE), and examine your tummy (abdomen),” it explains.

This is a useful way of checking whether there are any lumps in your tummy or bottom (rectum).

How to reduce your risk of bowel cancer

Your risk of developing bowel (colon and rectal) cancer depends on many things including age, genetics and lifestyle factors.

Having one or more risk factors doesn’t mean that you will definitely get bowel cancer.

Many studies have shown that eating lots of red and processed meat increases the risk of bowel cancer. 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.

Other risk factors include:

  • Being overweight and obese
  • Smoking tobacco
  • Alcohol
  • Age.

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