Bowel cancer awareness: The signs and symptoms you shouldn’t ignore


To raise awareness for bowel cancer, Vitality explains the signs to watch out for and the ways to reduce your risk

man sat on sofa with bowel touching stomach

Every day around 1,000 people in the UK are diagnosed with cancer. But this life-changing news doesn’t always mean it’s life-ending. Cancer survival has doubled in the last 40 years and more people than ever before are living a good quality of life after diagnosis.  

And that can 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. 

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.  

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

The signs and symptoms of bowel cancer

“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. 

Likely the most well-known symptom of bowel cancer is bleeding from the bottom or blood in your stool, and, like you wouldn’t disregard an open wound anywhere on your body, these signs should not be ignored, and you should contact your GP if you are experiencing either of these symptoms. 

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

Some people are reluctant, however, to discuss bowel-related topics with their doctor, but Roshane says there is no need to feel this way.  

“Some people are uncomfortable discussing bowel related symptoms with their doctor but there is no need to feel embarrassed as doctors are used to talking about these symptoms and are best placed to help you,” he notes.  

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 symptoms of bowel cancer:

  • 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 

To help Brits detect it early, the NHS is offering bowel cancer screening for those aged between 60 and 74 years’ old every two years. Although, the decision was made in 2021 to lower open screening to 50 to 59-year-olds. This is expected to happen gradually over a four-year period. 

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 Roshane. “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. Roshane 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 Roshane.  

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 Roshane.  

At Vitality, we understand it can be hard to manage your long-term health, particularly your weight. 

That’s why we have partnered with Second Nature, a one-to-one coaching app, which provides you with the tools you need to manage your weight over time.  

Complete your online Health Review and see if you are eligible to take part in a personalised 12-week programme, as well as access to the app for 12 months for just £20.  

Terms and conditions apply. Find out more by visiting Member Zone.   

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. 

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