- A change in bowel habits that continues for several weeks may often be the first noticeable sign of cancer.
- A week of diarrhea following constipation or feeling that the bowel doesn't empty completely is one of the early warning signs of bowel cancer.
- General abdominal discomfort (frequent gas pains, bloating, or cramps) that can be confused with indigestion is one of the early symptoms of bowel cancer.
- Symptomatic or asymptomatic anemia (low level of hemoglobin in the blood) may be a sign of constant bleeding as it happens with large polyps and in bowel cancer.
- Weight loss without conscious dieting efforts is also a sign of bowel cancer.
- Rectal bleeding or passing blood in motions may look like red blood or black. Sometimes, passing mucus with the blood in feces is also considered an important sign of bowel cancer.
Other common signs and symptoms of bowel cancer may include:
- A feeling of fullness or bloating in the abdomen (belly) or strange sensation in the rectum, often during a bowel movement
- Weakness or fatigue, or unexplained feelings of tiredness and breathlessness, or a lack of energy
- Bloating or discomfort caused by eating
- Rectal or anal pain
- A lump in the rectum or anus
- A lump or mass in the abdomen
- A blockage in the bowel
What is bowel cancer?
Bowel or colorectal cancer usually affects the large intestine. Bowel cancer develops from the uncontrolled multiplication of the cells that cover the inner lining of the bowel. Often, bowel cancer develops from polyps, the small and non-cancerous growths of tissues. Bowel cancer may run in families as well. This cancer affects people of all ages. The cells that have become cancerous may spread to other areas of the body such as the liver or lungs. This is called advanced bowel cancer.
Causes and risk factors:
- Older age: Most people with bowel cancer are older than 50 years, and the risk increases with age.
- Polyps: Having numerous polyps in the bowel is a known risk factor.
- Bowel diseases: People who have an inflammatory bowel disease such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis have a significantly increased risk, particularly if they have had it for more than 8 years.
- Lifestyle factors: Being overweight and having a diet high in red meat or processed meats such as salami or ham are risk factors for bowel cancer.
- Addictions: Drinking alcohol and smoking are risk factors for bowel cancer.
- Strong family history: A small number of bowel cancer runs in families.
- Other diseases: People who have had bowel cancer once are more likely to develop a second bowel cancer; some people who have had ovarian or endometrial (uterine) cancer may have an increased risk of bowel cancer.
- Rare genetic disorders: A small number of bowel cancers are associated with an inherited gene, for example, familial polyposis coli.
- Radiotherapy: This involves using radiation to attack the cancer cells.
- Chemotherapy and biological therapy: These involve using medications to attack the cancer cells.
- Targeted therapies: These are also used in which a newer group of medicines increases the effectiveness of chemotherapy and prevents cancer from spreading.
- Surgery: The affected part of the large bowel is removed.
- This is the most effective way to treat bowel cancer, particularly if the cancer is limited to the bowel.
- It can usually be performed using a keyhole surgery, which means a faster recovery, small scars, and less pain after the procedure.
- In some cases, depending on the location of the growth, surgery may lead to the need for a stoma where the bowel opens into the skin on the front of the abdomen. This can be an ileostomy or a colostomy. It can be permanent or temporary. Your doctor will discuss this with you prior to your surgery so that you are fully aware of the implications for you.
Bowel cancer is treatable and can be cured, particularly if it is diagnosed early enough. Nine out of 10 people with stage I bowel cancer survive 5 years or longer after they are diagnosed. However, this survival rate drops significantly the longer a person has the disease before diagnosis. The number of people dying from bowel cancer each year has been falling since the 1970s. Guidelines generally recommend that colon cancer screenings begin at the age of 50 years.