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Signs and symptoms of bowel cancer

29 June 2022 Blog
Cancer care
More than 15,000 Australians are diagnosed with bowel cancer every year, with one-in-10 of those being under the age of 50. Bowel cancer is responsible for the second largest number of deaths related to cancer in Australia, however, if picked up early it can often be treated successfully.

It is important to know the symptoms of bowel cancer and how you can reduce your risk of getting bowel cancer. Symptoms of bowel cancer are often mistaken for other medical conditions, medications or lifestyle changes, so it is important that if you experience any of the symptoms listed below for more than two weeks to discuss these with your doctor promptly.

What are the signs and symptoms of bowel cancer?

Blood in your stool, or rectal bleeding.

Obvious change in your bowel habit – such as constipation, diarrhoea or both, a change in shape or appearance of your poo, feeling like you’re not completely empty when doing a poo.

Weight loss you can’t explain.

Extreme tiredness for no reason.

Lump or swelling in your abdomen, or in your bottom.

How does screening work for bowel cancer? 

Early bowel cancers don’t always cause noticeable symptoms like the ones above, which is why screening programs such as the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program (NBCSP) are so important.

The NBCSP provides free bowel cancer screening tests to all Australians, every two years, for those aged 50 to 74 years. The easy to use screening test can detect tiny amounts of blood in your poo that can be a sign of bowel cancer. If blood is detected you will likely be referred to a specialist for a colonoscopy to look inside your bowel for the cause of your bleeding – this may not be related to cancer.

How can you reduce your risk of getting bowel cancer?

To reduce the risk of bowel cancer it is important to limit your intake of red meat, processed meat and sugary treats as well as eat more healthy food which is high in dietary fibre such as fruit, vegetables and wholegrain cereals.

There are two types of risk factors for bowel cancer – those that can be changed and those that cannot.

Risk factors that cannot be changed but are good to be aware of include:

  • family history of bowel cancer 
  • hereditary conditions
  • age; and 
  • personal medical history such as inflammatory bowel disease.

Risk factors that can be changed are:

  • diet and lifestyle-related factors (eg smoking, alcohol and drug use)
  • increased weight; and 
  • insufficient daily physical activity

For more information on Bowel Cancer Awareness Month.

Clinical Nurse Consultant Nicole Newell
Nicole Newell - Clinical Nurse Consultant
Nicole Newell is a clinical nurse consultant – colorectal cancer at St John of God Midland Public and Private Hospitals. She works with the colorectal surgical, oncology, nursing and allied health teams to provide optimal and coordinated care for patients diagnosed with colorectal cancer.