What is bowel cancer?
Bowel cancer is a general term for cancer that begins in the large bowel. Depending on where exactly the cancer starts, bowel cancer is sometimes called colon or rectal cancer.
Bowel cancer is one of the most common types of cancer diagnosed in Ireland. More than 2700 people are diagnosed with it each year. Most people diagnosed with it are over the age of 60.
What are the symptoms?
The symptoms of bowel cancer can be subtle and don't necessarily make you feel ill.
More than 90% of people with bowel cancer have one of the following combinations of symptoms:
- A persistent change in bowel habit. Going more often, with looser stools and sometimes stomach (abdominal) pain
- Blood in your stool especially if mixed through the stool. This makes it unlikely the cause is haemorrhoids (piles)
- Stomach pain, discomfort or bloating; always brought on by eating. This can sometimes result in a reduction in the amount of food eaten and weight loss
Bowel cancer symptoms are also very common, and most people with them don't have cancer. For example:
- A change in bowel habit or abdominal pain is usually the result of something you have eaten
- A change in bowel habit to going less often, with harder stool, is not usually caused by any serious condition. It may be worth trying laxatives before seeing your GP
- Constipation, where you pass harder stools less often
- Fresh blood - often separate from your stool or coating the stool. This, when associated with pain or soreness is more often caused by piles or a simple tear (fissure)
These symptoms should be taken more seriously as you get older and when they persist despite simple treatments.
When should I seek medical advice?
Although bowel cancer symptoms are very common, you should talk to your GP if they persist for more than 4 weeks. Most people with these symptoms don't have bowel cancer.
Talk to your GP if your symptoms persist or keep coming back after stopping treatment. Do this regardless of their severity or your age.
Other symptoms: Bowel obstruction
In some cases, bowel cancer can stop digestive waste passing through the bowel. This 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
A bowel obstruction is a medical emergency. If you suspect you have a bowel obstruction, you should talk to your GP quickly. If this isn't possible, go to the emergency department of your nearest hospital.
In Ireland, everyone aged 60 to 69 is eligible for bowel cancer screening.