NHS doctor who had bowel cancer says 'don't wait' if you notice change

Patients with signs of bowel cancer should be offered an at-home poo test before a colonoscopy under new guidance (Alamy/PA)
-Credit: (Image: Alamy/PA)


A NHS GP has urged people not to wait to see their doctor if they notice changes. Dr Anisha Patel was diagnosed with stage three bowel cancer at the age of 39 and has worked to raise awareness, often being seen on TV and heard on radio.

Dr Patel, who also wrote a book called ‘Everything you hoped you’d never need to know about bowel cancer’, wrote in an NHS blog that she "perhaps played down my symptoms". And she said it was one thing she noticed that meant she "finally went to see my GP".

Dr Patel wrote: "As a doctor, perhaps I played down my symptoms. Initially I had bloating, cramps and sometimes felt an urgency to go to the toilet, which I put down to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). I occasionally saw blood on the toilet paper, which I thought could be due to a pile as I gave birth a few years before. I felt very tired, but I didn’t find it unusual as I had a busy lifestyle.

"As my symptoms got worse including my bowel movements, I finally went to see my GP. My stools became thin and ribbon-like because there was a tumour obstructing it. After some scans and tests, I was referred for specialist treatment and diagnosed with bowel cancer."

Dr Patel said her diagnosis left her feeling "hopelessly lost, distraught, and directionless, and at other times inconsolably upset, angry, and irritated". She said she was scared as she went for the operation to remove the tumour, not knowing what she would wake up to.

But it was a success, with the tumour being removed. Three months of chemotherapy followed, to reduce the risk of the cancer coming back.

How to spot symptoms of bowel cancer

Dr Patel said that 42,900 new cases of bowel cancer are diagnosed in the UK every year. Of those, 2,600 are under the age of 50.

She wrote: "Even though 90% of cases are people aged over 50, I know first-hand that it can affect anyone, of any age. If we know what our normal bowel habits are, we can spot when something doesn’t feel right.

"We should listen to our bodies and keep an eye on how regularly we go and check stools for their shape and consistency. And also keep an eye out for any blood in the toilet or tissue before you flush. Other symptoms may include tummy pain, bloating, losing weight without trying and feeling very tired for no reason.

"Even as health professionals, some of us feel uncomfortable speaking about our bowel movements and we may brush off symptoms as nothing. In fact, coming from a South Asian background, I know there are some things we never spoke about openly and remember ‘cancer’ never being mentioned in most homes. So, I feel even more passionate about sharing my story to raise awareness and to help alleviate the stigma surrounding this cancer.

"Doctors are used to examining all parts of the body and hear about things like this all the time. So, if you think something doesn’t feel right, don’t feel embarrassed and contact your GP surgery – particularly if you have had symptoms for three weeks or more, no matter how old you are. It might not be cancer, but you need to know what’s going on."

Double testing more effective at identifying bowel cancer, according to a new study (PA)
Older people should receive a screening kit every two years -Credit:PA

Can you get screened for bowel cancer?

Dr Patel explained that people who are aged 56 to 74 years old will receive a free NHS bowel cancer screening kit every two years. The programme is also being extended and is expected to include everyone over 50 by next year. Regular screening helps to prevent bowel cancer, or catch it an early stage.

Dr Patel said: "The kit will be posted to you and following some simple steps can save your life. You take a small sample at home and return it in a sealed bottle in the envelope provided. It is tested for small traces of blood that aren’t visible by eye. The presence of blood doesn’t mean you have bowel cancer, but further tests are usually advised.

"If you or anyone in your family gets a screening kit through the door, I plead with you – don’t put it off. It takes just a moment, but can help spot signs of cancer even if you don’t have any obvious symptoms."

Bowel cancer is the third most common type of cancer and the UK’s second-biggest cancer killer. Find out more at www.nhs.uk/bowel-screening