Red flag signs of silent killer that can grow for years without symptoms

Doctor writing notes on medication
When do you need to see a doctor? -Credit:DIGICOMPHOTO/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

When Dame Deborah James died of bowel cancer it sparked a fresh look at the disease by many people. For despite there being simple tests for the disease and it being treatable if caught early enough many people simply don't do the checks.

According to Bowel Cancer UK the disease is the fourth most common cancer in the UK. Almost 43,000 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer every year in the UK with around 268,000 people living in the country who have been diagnosed with it.

More than nine out of 10 new cases (94%) are diagnosed in people over the age of 50. But bowel cancer can affect anyone of any age.

More than 2,600 new cases are diagnosed in people under the age of 50 every year. One in 15 men and one in 18 women will be diagnosed with bowel cancer during their lifetime.

However the charity says people can survive if treated in time. It says: "Nearly everyone survives bowel cancer if diagnosed at the earliest stage. However this drops significantly as the disease develops. Early diagnosis really does save lives.

"More than 16,800 people die from bowel cancer in the UK every year. It is the second biggest cancer killer in the UK. But the number of people dying of bowel cancer has been falling since the 1970s. This may be due to earlier diagnosis, better treatment options and the start of the national bowel cancer screening programme."

According to the Moffat Cancer Center one of the problems is that symptoms are not always present. It says: "Like many other types of cancer, colon cancer often does not present any symptoms in its early stages. By the time the cancer has advanced to stage 4 (metastasized), a number of symptoms may occur depending on where in the body the cancer has spread. However, not everyone will experience symptoms – or the same set of symptoms – as every patient’s experience is unique.

"Colon cancer is typically slow-growing, starting as a benign polyp that eventually becomes malignant. This process may occur over many years without producing any symptoms. Once colon cancer has developed, it may still be years before it is detected. Therefore, estimating how long it takes for colon cancer to become metastatic and show symptoms can be tricky."

So what at the red flag signs everyone needs to be aware of and to look out for. According to the NHS there are 10 key symptoms to watch for, although not everyone may have them all or even any of them. These are:

  • changes in your poo, such as having softer poo, diarrhoea or constipation that is not usual for you

  • needing to poo more or less often than usual for you

  • blood in your poo, which may look red or black

  • bleeding from your bottom

  • often feeling like you need to poo, even if you've just been to the toilet

  • tummy pain

  • a lump in your tummy

  • bloating

  • losing weight without trying

  • feeling very tired for no reason

The NHS reassures people that some of these symptoms are very common and can be caused by other conditions. Having the symptoms does not definitely mean you have bowel cancer, but it's important to get checked by a GP. If your symptoms are caused by cancer, finding it early may mean it's easier to treat.

When to see a GP

  • you have any symptoms of bowel cancer for 3 weeks or more

Try not to be embarrassed. The doctor or nurse will be used to talking about these symptoms.

When to get an urgent GP appointment

  • your poo is black or dark red

  • you have bloody diarrhoea

You can call 111 or get help from 111 online.

When to go to A&E or dial 999

  • you're bleeding non-stop from your bottom

  • there's a lot of blood, for example, the toilet water turns red or you see large blood clots