What are the symptoms of bowel cancer and how is it treated?

Black Panther actor Chadwick Boseman’s death at 43 is “devastating”, the head of a cancer charity said as she urged people to look out for symptoms of bowel cancer and get checked if they have any.

Here we look at how this type of cancer might show up, what it means and what the options are.

– What is bowel cancer?

Bowel cancer is a general term for cancer that begins in the large bowel.

Depending on where it starts, bowel cancer is sometimes called colon or rectal cancer, the NHS says.

– How common is it?

Bowel cancer is the fourth most common cancer in the UK and the second biggest cancer killer, Genevieve Edwards, chief executive at Bowel Cancer UK said.

Someone is diagnosed with the disease every 15 minutes.

– Who does it affect?

It is more common in people aged over 50 but can affect people of all ages.

There are more than 2,500 under 50s diagnosed in the UK each year, the charity said.

– What are the symptoms?

According to the NHS website the three main ones are persistent blood in your poo, a persistent change in your bowel habit – perhaps having to go to the toilet more and having more runny faeces – and also persistent stomach pain, bloating or discomfort.

NHS signage (Dominic Lipinski/PA)
NHS signage (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

This may be associated with loss of appetite or significant unintentional weight loss.

– What should I do if I think I have symptoms?

Ms Edwards said people should contact their doctor as soon as possible in this case.

She said: “Bowel Cancer UK urges everyone, no matter what their age, to familiarise themselves with the symptoms of bowel cancer and contact their GP as soon as possible if they have bleeding from their bottom and/or blood in their poo, a persistent and unexplained change in bowel habit, unexplained weight loss, extreme tiredness for no obvious reason, and a pain or lump in their tummy, to ensure the best possible chance of an early diagnosis.”

A recent report by the charity found that half of under 50s did not know they could develop the disease, with a third putting off visiting their GP for a number of months, despite experiencing symptoms.

– Is there screening for this type of cancer?

Yes but generally not for the under 50s.

Bowel Cancer UK says that in England, Wales and Northern Ireland people over the age of 60 are invited to take part in bowel cancer screening, while in Scotland screening starts from age 50.

– What if I am diagnosed, is there treatment?

Ms Edwards said it is vital to raise awareness of symptoms because the disease is “treatable and curable, especially if diagnosed early”.

In some cases surgeons can remove the cancerous section of bowel.

According to the NHS website this is the most effective way of curing bowel cancer and in many cases is all that is needed.

Other options are chemotherapy – where medicine is used to kill cancer cells, and radiotherapy, where radiation is used to destroy the cells.

There are also targeted therapies which the NHS describes as a newer group of medicines that increase the effectiveness of chemotherapy and prevents the cancer spreading.