22 Jan 2021

Bowel cancer - signs, symptoms and treatment

Bowel cancer is the fourth most common cancer in the UK and the second most common cause of deaths. Bowel cancer survivor Dr Philippa Kaye shares the symptoms and treatment and explains that yes, doctors get cancer too.

What are the signs and symptoms of bowel cancer?

We know we should check our breasts and attend cervical screening, but be honest, how many of you turn around and check the toilet bowl after you have opened your bowels to look for blood?  

Colorectal (bowel) cancer is the fourth most common cancer in the UK, yet it is the second most common cause of cancer deaths.  

Like many cancers it becomes more common the older we become but I was aged just 39 when I was diagnosed with bowel cancer, at the time the odds were just 1 in 10,000, but it can and most definitely does happen!

WATCH: Dr Philippa's emotional and inspirational chat with The Latte Lounge Facebook group all about her cancer diagnosis and treatment.:

Signs and symptoms to look out for include persistent abdominal pain, a change in bowel habit and blood in your stools. We all have a bowel habit, which is normal for us, be it going twice a week or six times a day, it is any persistent change to your normal, be it to diarrhoea or constipation that would be considered a change in bowel habit to be discussed with your GP.  

Having any of these symptoms does not definitely mean it is bowel cancer, after all haemorrhoids can cause rectal bleeding, but any breast lump needs to be checked out, so too do any of the symptoms above.

How is bowel cancer diagnosed?

My bowel cancer symptoms and diagnosis

I had had some intermittent pelvic pain since the birth of my daughter, approximately four years prior to my diagnosis but after three Caesarean sections, an appendix removal and surgery for an ectopic pregnancy I had had a lot of surgery and presumed the pain was related to scar tissue. Indeed scar tissue is likely to have been contributing to the pain but in the few months before diagnosis the pain became more persistent and intense leading me to seek help. 

My diagnosis surprised everyone involved!

The UK bowel screening programme

The current bowel screening programme involves a poo test. The test kit will be sent to your house and involves a small sample of stool called the faecal immunochemical test (FIT test). This tests for tiny tiny hidden amounts of blood in the stool, too small to be seen with the naked eye.  

If the test is positive you will be called for a scope test, as cancer is not the only cause of bleeding into the stool. It can be due to benign polyps or inflammatory bowel disease. 

The screening programme in the UK begins at age 60, though the Government has agreed to reduce the starting age to age 50 which is when bowel cancer rates begin to rise, but as yet there has been no agreed date for the earlier age to begin.  

In some parts of the country you may have been called for a one-off bowel scope screening at age 55 but this has been stopped and, if you were called for this test but it was delayed due to coronavirus you will be sent a home testing kit from April 2021.

How do you deal with a cancer diagnosis?

Half of us will have a cancer diagnosis at some point in our lives, which means that every single one of us will be affected by cancer at some point, be it either ourselves or someone we know and care about.  Cancer tries to take over everything in your life, from your work, to your relationships.  Just as the cancer grows to take over your body, so too it feels as if it is taking over your life, your psyche, your very being.  Between appointments, surgeries, recovery, chemotherapy and more it can feel like all you do and are is a cancer patient but you are not!  

I was lucky, my tumour was discovered before it has spread to other parts of my body and although the process was of course, extremely traumatic, my prognosis is excellent, with a 90-95% five year survival.  The fact that I even had to write the words survival rate, brings home the enormity of my cancer diagnosis.  Despite being used to death as a dr, having been exposed to it so regularly starting from a relatively young age, the day of my diagnosis was the first time that I truly, truly, considered my own survival, or actually, my own mortality.  

What did I learn about dealing with cancer?

As someone who has had cancer if I could give two pieces of advice if someone you know has cancer.

A cancer patient is the same person they always were

The first would be to remember that they are not only a cancer patient.  If they want to talk about it, great, listen away but if they don’t remember all the other things that they are and enjoy and talk about them, be that family, weighty matters or shoes!  They are still the same person they always were, albeit with something very weighty and significant happening which will inevitably change them in some way, but they may well enjoy talking about other things without the focus always being on the cancer.

The importance of listening

The second piece of advice is about the importance of listening without trying to fix it.  We are all guilty of this, myself included, that when our friends and loved ones are in pain, in whatever form that may take, that their pain hurts us and so we want to fix it.  But fixing it isn’t always possible, or even if it is, that there is a solution, or hope doesn’t mean that it doesn’t feel awful right now.  Knowing that this is your last chemo cycle doesn’t mean that you don’t feel bad; being positive in general doesn’t mean that one day you can’t feel sad or angry.  The urge of other people to always fix it can mean that you end up feeling as if your feelings aren’t valid, which is probably not what the ‘fixer’ was after at all!  Just listening and acknowledging how difficult things are can help that person feel less alone in their experience.  For me, that was often enough.

An early diagnosis matters

Time matters when it comes to cancer, the earlier it is discovered and diagnosed, the easier it is to treat with better outcomes and prognosis.  If you have any of the symptoms described here, please see your GP.  And if you would like to read more about my experience as a young doctor and mum of three, my diary of that time has been published.  

cover image of dr philippa kaye doctors get cancer tooDoctors Get Cancer Too, written by Dr Philippa Kaye and published by Vie, is available from 11 February 2021. It details the challenge of being both a doctor and a patient with bowel cancer, all at the same time.

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