Blog: Check yourself…(and know the signs of bowel cancer)

With the recent tragic loss of Dame Deborah James (aka the Bowel Babe), Senior Public Health Practitioner, Shane Knott reflects on her legacy and explains what signs to look out for – and more importantly what to do if you’re worried about bowel cancer.

“Dame Deborah James was a fearless advocate who dedicated the remaining years of her life to raising awareness of the signs and symptoms of bowel cancer.

She was open about her own struggle and was relentless in using her public profile, and the “You, Me and the Big C” podcast to engage the public in her own beautiful and inimitable way.

Bowel cancer is the fourth most common cancer in the UK, with around 42,900 people diagnosed each year.

Around 95% of bowel cancers occur in people aged over 50, but it can occur at any age – and it makes me sad that it’s often only after we lose someone in a very public way, that we start to pay attention.

The lifetime risk of developing it (for people born in the UK after 1960) is 1 in 15 for men, and 1 in 18 for women.

It’s perfectly understandable that we are fearful of cancer – so much of what we read is about how people die from it – but the chances of survival from Bowel Cancer are greatly increased when treatment is started earlier.

There’s a 90% survival rate after 5 years, if the bowel cancer is diagnosed at stage one, 80% at stage two and 70% at stage three.

If you spot anything unusual in your poo, rather than worrying, and delaying taking action – the best thing to do is talk to your GP. 

Most of the time, the symptoms are not cancer and can be explained by other conditions, but the NHS Jack in the Box campaign highlights that the worst thing about cancer is not knowing.

My advice is to check yourself.

There are three main things to look out for:

  • blood in your poo that happens for no obvious reason – it may be bright red or dark red
  • a change in how you poo – such as going to the toilet more often – or your poo becoming more runny or hard
  • feeling lower tummy pain or bloating (when your belly feels full and tight)

There may be other symptoms too, such as:

  • you’ve lost weight
  • you feel you haven’t emptied your bowel properly after a poo
  • you feel more tired or dizzy than usual

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms and are worried, please contact your GP.

Your GP may ask you to take a Faecal Immunochemical Test (FIT Test) to identify small quantities of blood in your stool, as this can happen when a tumour is present in the bowel.

As part of the National Bowel Cancer Screening Programme, people aged 60 to 74 in England are invited to complete and return a FIT Test every 2 years to check for bowel cancer.

The programme is being expanded in Liverpool and you may be sent a home test kit from as early as 56.

The home test kit will ask you to collect a small sample of poo on a stick and return it to the laboratory for testing.

Around half of people in Liverpool who were sent a bowel screening kit in the past 2.5 years have completed and returned the kit – meaning the other half have been left not knowing…

Always make sure your GP has your correct address so you will receive the kit, and if you’ve not been sent a kit, or have misplaced it – you can contact the bowel screening service directly on 0800 707 60 60 to order a new one.”

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