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Listen to Your Gut: The Signs and Symptoms of Bowel Cancer

As we move into Bowel Cancer Awareness month, we’ll be unravelling the many symptoms of the disease – from the subtle signs to the glaring red flags.

Affecting around 15, 500 Australians each year, bowel cancer is the third most common form of cancer in the country. There are multiple kinds of the disease, but 9 out of 10 are known as adenocarcinomas. This means the cancerous cells start out in the gland cells of the bowel’s lining. These are some of the other – and rarer – types:

  • Squamous cell cancers (in the skin like cells of the bowel lining)
  • Neuroendocrine tumours 
  • Small bowel cancer
  • Gastrointestinal stromal tumours
  • Lymphomas

The signs and symptoms of bowel cancer

It’s worth noting that while there are a number of common symptoms of the disease, bowel cancer can also develop without any symptoms. This is why screenings are important, especially in those over 50 years of age. Let’s take a look at some of the major symptoms:

  • Changes in bowel habits: Unusual problems like diarrhoea, constipation, or a change in the consistency of stool, that last for several weeks without an obvious cause are one of the most common signs of bowel cancer.
  • Blood in stool: The presence of blood in poo is a major indication of internal bleeding, specifically in the lower digestive tract. The blood may be bright red or even dark and tarry.
  • Abdominal pain: Unexplained abdominal pain or discomfort, including cramps, bloating, or persistent discomfort that does not go away with usual remedies, are commonly associated with bowel cancer.
  • Unexplained weight loss: Significant and unexplained weight loss without an apparent cause is another common symptom of the disease. It may be accompanied by loss of appetite and fatigue.
  • Anaemia: Iron-deficiency anaemia that may result in weakness, fatigue, and pale skin often occurs with the condition due to persistent bleeding from the bowel, leading to blood and iron loss.
  • A feeling of incomplete bowel movements: A feeling of incomplete emptying after bowel movements or a persistent urge to have a bowel movement, even after having one.
  • Bowel obstruction: In some cases, bowel cancer may cause a partial or complete blockage in the bowel, leading to symptoms such as severe abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and inability to pass gas or have a bowel movement.

Risk factors for bowel cancer

There are a number of factors that can spike your risk for bowel cancer, including those we have little to no control over and those we can change. Let’s first take a look at those that are out of our control:

  • Being over 50
  • A history of colon polyps or bowel disease
  • A family history of the disease
  • Genetic syndromes like adenomatous polyposis (FAP)
  • Having type 2 diabetes
  • Being obese

There are also a number of lifestyle and environmental risk factors that we have more sway over:

  • Being overweight or obese
  • Smoking and heavy drinking
  • Poor diet – particularly one rich in processed meats
  • A sedentary lifestyle

If you're looking to support bowel cancer research and awareness, you can purchase a virtual ribbon HERE.

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