Bowel cancer: spotting the signs and seeking support

As the family of Dame Deborah James mark her passing, her legacy lives on in helping to raise awareness of the symptoms of bowel cancer.

Nearly 43,000 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer every year in the UK, making it the fourth most common cancer and the second biggest cancer killer in the country. Despite this, few people know the signs and symptoms to look out for. Over the last five years Dame Deborah James, aka Bowel Babe, was integral in raising awareness of the cancer and the importance of early intervention.

Deborah, who was diagnosed with stage 4 bowel cancer in December 2016, died on 28 June 2022, having spent the last five years hosting You, Me and the Big C – a podcast about living with cancer – and raising money and awareness. After stopping treatment earlier this year, Deborah set up the Bowelbabe Fund and so far has raised more than £7 million to fund clinical trials and research, and campaigns to raise awareness of bowel cancer. Deborah’s book, How to Live When You Could Be Dead, is due to be published this August.

Signs and symptoms

Like many cancers, bowel cancer is very treatable if it is diagnosed early, which means it is essential to see your GP if you spot any signs or symptoms, or feel like something isn’t right in your body. Remember that these symptoms don’t mean you have bowel cancer: most people with these symptoms don’t have bowel cancer but it is always best to visit a health professional.

Bleeding from your bottom or blood in your poo; a persistent and unexplained change in bowel habit; unexplained weight loss; extreme tiredness for no obvious reason; and a pain or lump in your tummy are all symptoms to look out for.

Credit: Bowel Cancer UK

These same symptoms could be a result of constipation, irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease or another condition.

Bowel Cancer UK provide a helpful symptoms diary template that you can download. This helps you keep track of your symptoms so that you can better describe them to your doctor, giving them more information on whether you need further tests. The charity also has helpful video resources and information pages on risk factors, visiting your GP and more generally about bowel cancer.

Information and support

If you want to learn more about bowel cancer, are currently waiting for test results, have been diagnosed or you are a loved one of someone who has been diagnosed, there is support available. Alongside Bowel Cancer UK, other charities and organisations like Cancer Research UK, Macmillan Cancer Support, Cancer Support UK and NHS Inform can offer help and guidance, or connect you with a support group in your area.

If you have questions, call the Cancer Research UK nurse helpline on 0808 800 4040 or the Macmillan Support Line on 0808 808 0000.

As part of the NHS England Cancer Earlier Diagnosis campaign, Help Us Help You, the NHS are sharing resources around all cancers that are available in easy read format, British Sign Language and other alternative formats.

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