Bowel cancer awareness: Spotting the signs and symptoms


The King and Princess of Wales are high-profile proof of the importance of early detection for cancer. So, for Bowel Cancer Awareness month, Vitality Magazine has outlined some of the signs and symptoms you shouldn’t ignore and how to speak to your GP

man sat on sofa with bowel touching stomach

The last two months have seen some of the most high-profile cancer announcements in modern history. 

King Charles, 75, and the Princess of Wales, 42, both revealed to the public that they are undergoing treatment for cancer. 

To use Catherine’s words during her worldwide broadcast to announce her condition, speaking to anyone who has been impacted by cancer, she said: “You are not alone”.

The monarch himself and one of its most senior members are among the 1,000 people in the UK diagnosed with cancer every dayThis life-changing news, however, doesn’t always mean it’s life-ending.

Cancer survival is improving and has doubled in the last 50 years across the UK; and more people than ever before are living a good quality of life after diagnosis.  

That can also be said for bowel (or colorectal) cancer patients too. Bowel cancer is the fourth most common type of cancer among Brits and the second biggest cancer killer.

But bowel cancer is one of the most treatable, if caught early. Most cases of bowel cancer develop from small pre-cancerous growths in the gut, known as polyps, but not all of these will be cancerous. 

Want to know more about actionable steps you can take to help avoid a bowel cancer diagnosis? Why not join Vitality for a conversation with its in-house clinician Dr Rosie Godeseth and Vitality nutritionist James Vickers on 25 April for Bowel Cancer Awareness Month.

The duo will tackle topics from maintaining a healthy diet – and how to incorporate it into a busy routine – plus surprising foods you didn't know count towards your 30-a-week and the signs and symptoms of bowel cancer to look out for.

Register here to secure your place.

Ninety percent of people who are diagnosed with stage 1 bowel cancer will survive their cancer for 5 years or more after diagnosis. This, however, drops significantly if the disease has spread, which makes early diagnosis absolutely vital.  

“Given how common bowel cancer is, around 43,000 are diagnosed with bowel cancer every year, it is important to be aware of the early signs, as the earlier it is diagnosed, the higher the chance it can be treated successfully,” says Roshane Mohidin, Vitality’s Head of Health Improvement and NHS GP.

Knowing the signs and symptoms of bowel cancer is, therefore, a must when it comes to the prevention of bowel cancer.  

Bowel cancer signs and symptoms

The most well-known symptom of bowel cancer is bleeding from the bottom or blood in your stool, and is something that should not be ignored.

You should contact your GP if you are experiencing either of these symptoms or any of the symptoms listed below: 

  • A persistent change in bowel habit, changes to your stool and needing to go more or less often than usual  
  • Tummy pain  
  • Unexpected weight loss and/or loss of appetite  
  • Persistent bloating  
  • Feeling tired with no specific cause

Worried about cancer and want to find out more? Visit our Guide to Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment here.  

If you are feeling embarrassed or struggle to talk about your symptoms, try writing down your symptoms with as much detail as possible to give to your GP.  

Early detectionTo help Brits detect bowel cancer early, the NHS is offering a screening for those aged between 60 and 74 years’ old every two years. 

The test involves an at-home testing kit called a faecal immunochemical test (FIT), whereby a small amount of poo is collected and sent for analysis for the presence of blood.  

“For most people screened, no further investigation is needed,” explains Mohidin. “However, it does not guarantee that you do not have bowel cancer, and it is still important to visit your GP if any symptoms appear and continue to be screened when invited.” 

If blood is detected in your sample, this does not mean you have cancer. But it will warrant a referral from your GP for further investigation. 

Mohidin adds: “Post referral, you will be contacted by a specialist screening practitioner who will help answer questions you might have, discuss the screening results and next steps, which may include a colonoscopy.” 

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle 

There are a number of factors that could result in a bowel cancer diagnosis. Family history and certain genetic conditions can make some people more susceptible to the disease, although these numbers are relatively low.  

Only 5% of people diagnosed with bowel cancer have a gene mutation running in their family. But if you are worried about the pattern of cancer in your family, you should talk to your GP, who can refer you to a genetics specialist. 

Other factors that could put someone at risk of bowel cancer are lifestyle related. “Research has shown that up to 50% of all bowel cancers can be prevented through changes to your lifestyle and diet,” says Mohidin.  

Unsurprisingly, being overweight is associated with increased risk of bowel cancer. According to Cancer Research UK (CRUK), obesity is the second biggest cause of cancer in the UK

That doesn’t mean you will definitely develop cancer if you are overweight. However, extra fat in the body doesn’t just stay inactive. Fat cells send signals to other cells across the body, which can make them divide more often and lead to growth of cancer.  

“It is also recommended to limit your alcohol intake and stop smoking as both are linked to bowel cancer,” adds Mohidin.  

Diet is another major factor that contributes to bowel cancer. The World Health Organization has classified processed meats as a Group 1 carcinogen, the same classification as tobacco smoking and asbestos. 

In particular, these meats – such as bacon, salami and Frankfurters – put people at increased risks of bowel cancer. 

“Processed meat is any meat that has been treated to preserve it and/or add flavour,” explains Ryan James, Vitality Expert and Health & Wellbeing Advisor.  

He recommends limiting red meat intake to 70g per day, “or ideally having days with no red meat”. Try some of his tips below to reduce your red meat consumption: 

  • Swap beef mince for turkey mince, or a try meat-free meatballs
  • For sandwiches, try cooking up chicken breasts and thinly cutting them 
  • Reduce red meat in meals, but add extra protein with beans and pulses 

To maintain a healthy gut, Ryan recommends a diet high in fibre, such as plant-based foods, which promote diverse gut bacteria an encourage it to grow. 

“Fermented foods, such as yoghurt, kimchi, kefir, temper and sauerkraut help to populate the gut with beneficial bacteria,” he adds. Wholegrain carbohydrates are also a better option over refined carbohydrates, which will boost fibre intake.  

If you would like more advice on preventive methods of any other cancer, visit the NHS website for more information or CRUK’s website.  

At Vitality, we believe that prevention is better than cure; and while not all illnesses can be averted, getting a health screen can increase your chances of catching a diagnosis early, meaning you get to spend more time with the people you love.

By being more proactive with your health and wellbeing, you could reduce or delay your need for care and support services in the future.

If you are a Vitality member and want to know more about the health checks that are available to you through the Bluecrest Network, log into Member Zone.

Or if you are interested in taking out a plan with Vitality, visit for more details.

Related: How to manage a bowel cancer diagnosis: Tony's story

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