Bowel cancer symptoms: signs of disease, how it compares to IBS and colon cancer, and how to get a screening

Radio 1 DJ Adele Roberts has revealed she has been diagnosed with bowel cancer.

Roberts, 42, who hosts Weekend Breakfast, said she was diagnosed at the start of October this year and will have to have surgery to remove a tumour.

But what is bowel cancer and what are the symptoms?

Here’s what you need to know.

What is bowel cancer?

Bowel cancer is one of the most common cancers in the UK, with more than 42,000 people diagnosed with the condition every year.

According to the charity Bowel Cancer UK, this type of cancer is the fourth most common cancer in the UK and most bowel cancers develop from pre-cancerous growths - called polyps - but not all polyps develop into cancer.

If your doctor finds any polyps, they can remove them in order to prevent them becoming cancerous, said Bowel Cancer UK.

Are bowel cancer and colon cancer the same thing?

Bowel cancer is a general term for cancer that begins in the large bowel, but depending on where the cancer starts it is sometimes called colon or rectal cancer.

What is IBS?

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common condition that affects the digestive system.

It causes symptoms like stomach cramps, bloating, diarrhoea and constipation. These tend to come and go over time, and can last for days, weeks or months at a time.

IBS is not cancer, but it’s usually a lifelong problem that can have a big impact on everyday life for those with the condition.

There’s no cure, but diet changes and medicines can often help control the symptoms.

What are the symptoms of bowel cancer?

According to the NHS, the three main symptoms of bowel cancer are:

  • persistent blood in your poo – that happens for no obvious reason or is associated with a change in bowel habit
  • a persistent change in your bowel habit – which is usually having to poo more and your poo may also become more runny
  • persistent lower abdominal (tummy) pain, bloating or discomfort – that’s always caused by eating and may be associated with loss of appetite or significant unintentional weight loss

However, the NHS notes that most people with these symptoms do not have bowel cancer, and other health problems can cause similar symptoms.

When should I see a GP?

The NHS says you should see a GP if you have any of the symptoms of bowel cancer for three weeks or more.

The GP may then:

  • examine your tummy and bottom to make sure you have no lumps
  • arrange for a simple blood test to check for iron deficiency anaemia – this can show whether there’s any bleeding from your bowel that you have not been aware of
  • arrange for you to have a simple test in hospital to make sure there’s no serious cause of your symptoms

You should “make sure you see a GP if your symptoms persist or keep coming back after stopping treatment, regardless of their severity or your age,” adds the NHS.

How does bowel cancer screening work?

In England, everyone aged 60 to 74 who is registered with a GP is eligible for NHS bowel cancer screening.

This involves using a home testing kit to send off some poo samples to be tested for blood. This can help detect bowel cancer before symptoms appear, making it easier to treat and improving the chances of survival.

What is the treatment for bowel cancer?

Bowel cancer can be treated using a combination of different treatments, depending on where the cancer is in your bowel and how far it has spread.

The main treatments are:

  • surgery – the cancerous section of bowel is removed. This is the most effective way of curing bowel cancer and in many cases is all you need
  • chemotherapy – where medicine is used to kill cancer cells
  • radiotherapy – where radiation is used to kill cancer cells
  • targeted therapies – a newer group of medicines that increases the effectiveness of chemotherapy and prevents the cancer spreading

However, the NHS explains that as with most types of cancer, the chance of a complete cure depends on how far it has spread by the time it’s diagnosed.

If the cancer is confined to the bowel, then surgery is usually able to completely remove it.

Keyhole or robotic surgery is now being used more often. This allows surgery to be performed with less pain and a quicker recovery.