Taking the time to spot the signs. The warning signs of bowel cancer.

We’ve talked a lot recently about the concept of self-care – the idea that our health is our own responsibility. This has been brought into sharp focus recently by the findings of a study by University College London and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, which showed that GPs sometimes miss the early warning signs of bowel cancer. You can read the full study here.

What did they find?Bowel Cancer symptoms

The study, published in the British Journal of Cancer, reported that important early warning signs of bowel cancer had been previously missed by GPs in as many as one in five emergency admissions.

This is a major problem because emergency admissions do not fare as well as other bowel cancer patients. If bowel cancer is not diagnosed until emergency admission, then treatment will not be started early enough, when it has a greater chance of success.

The study looked at over 1600 bowel cancer patients across 200 GP practices. It found that 17.5% of colon cancer emergency admissions, and 23% of rectal cancer emergency admissions, had visited their GP with so-called ‘red flag’ symptoms in the year leading up to their emergency diagnosis.

What are the ‘red flag’ symptoms?

The red flag symptoms include:

  • Rectal bleeding
  • Abdominal pain
  • Diarrhoea
  • Altered bowel habits
  • Anaemia (colon cancer)

Unfortunately, these symptoms can also be the result of a wide range of other problems, such as piles for rectal bleeding, stomach bugs for diarrhoea or wind for abdominal pain. Add in the pressures on GPs, with just a few minutes to spend with each patient, and it’s easy to see how these ‘red flag’ symptoms can slip through the net.

What can you do to self-care?

With GPs overstretched, we all have a role to play in looking after ourselves when it comes to bowel cancer. First and foremost, if you experience any of the red flag symptoms, you should talk to your GP as soon as possible, and keep talking to them for as long as your symptoms persist. It is better to be persistent than to be one of the 23% whose cancer was missed.

You can also make sure you take advantage of the free screening that is offered. According to Cancer Research UK, there are 110 new cases of bowel cancer diagnosed every day, making it the third most common cancer in both men and women. However, there is a marked increase in diagnosis over the age of 64, with 58% of these cancers diagnosed in the over 70s. If you fall into this age group, then you will be invited to take a simple bowel cancer screening test every two years. By simply returning the test, you can add an extra safety net to catch one of the main bowel cancer symptoms.

Talk to your ARCH registered therapist

While ARCH therapists do not claim to be doctors or cancer specialists, they do have a lot more time than your GP to talk about your symptoms, and to spot those red flags that the study shows are sometimes missed. What’s more, your ARCH registered therapist will perform a digital rectal exam as part of their initial consultation, before your treatment, which can identify any abnormalities in the rectum.

Your colonic consultation in no way replaces a visit to your GP, but again it adds an extra safety net when it comes to spotting bowel cancer symptoms. Many of our members have had cases where they have referred clients to their GP, based on their symptoms and their own examination, resulting in an early, and potentially lifesaving diagnosis.

Take responsibility

If you have any of the red flag symptoms, it is important to get yourself checked out as soon as possible, because the earlier cancer treatment starts, the better the chances of success. Beating Bowel Cancer has a helpline, manned by nurses, who can answer any questions you have. Just call 020 8973 0011 during office hours. Alternatively, you can speak to a nurse at Cancer Research UK, free on 0808 800 4040.




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