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Bowel cancer symptoms

This page tells you about the symptoms of bowel (colorectal) cancer. You can find the following information

 

A quick guide to what's on this page

Bowel cancer symptoms

The symptoms of bowel (colorectal) cancer can include

  • Bleeding from the back passage (rectum) or blood in your stools
  • A lasting change in normal bowel habits towards diarrhoea or looser stools
  • A lump in your abdomen (more commonly on the right side) or in your rectum
  • A straining feeling in the rectum
  • Losing weight
  • Pain in your abdomen or rectum
  • Anaemia (a low level of red blood cells) caused by the tumour bleeding, which can lead to tiredness and sometimes breathlessness

Cancer of the bowel may cause a blockage (a bowel obstruction). The symptoms of this are griping pains in the abdomen, feeling bloated, constipation, and being sick.

Seeing your GP

All these symptoms can be caused by other diseases, including piles (haemorrhoids), infections or inflammatory bowel disease. If you are worried about any symptoms, do see your GP. The combination of symptoms and your age is important and will alert your doctor if there is a possibility of bowel cancer.

 

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Symptoms of bowel cancer

The symptoms of bowel (colorectal) cancer can include

  • Bleeding from the back passage (rectum) or blood in your stools
  • A change in normal bowel habits to diarrhoea or looser stools, lasting longer than 4 to 6 weeks
  • A lump that your doctor can feel in your back passage or abdomen (more commonly on the right side)
  • A feeling of needing to strain in your back passage (as if you needed to pass a bowel motion)
  • Losing weight
  • Pain in your abdomen or back passage
  • A lower than normal level of red blood cells (anaemia)

Because bowel tumours can bleed, cancer of the bowel often causes a shortage of red blood cells. This is called anaemia and may cause tiredness and sometimes breathlessness.

Sometimes cancer can block the bowel. This is called a bowel obstruction. The symptoms include

  • Griping pains in the abdomen
  • Feeling bloated
  • Constipation
  • Being sick

All the symptoms mentioned above can be caused by other diseases, apart from cancer. Many of these other conditions are much less serious, such as piles (haemorrhoids), infections or inflammatory bowel disease. If you are young and have bleeding from the back passage with itching and soreness, you are much more likely to have piles than bowel cancer.

 

Blood in stools

Blood in the stool (poo) can be a sign of bowel cancer. But more often it is due to other causes. If you are worried about any symptoms that you think could be caused by cancer in the bowel you should see your GP.

Most often, blood in the stool is from piles (haemorrhoids), especially if it is bright red, fresh blood. Piles are like swollen veins in the back passage. These veins are fragile and can easily get damaged when you pass a bowel motion, causing a little bleeding.

Blood from higher up in the bowel doesn't look bright red. It goes black and can make your bowel motions look dark, like tar. This type of bleeding can be a sign of a cancer higher up the bowel. Or it could be from a bleeding ulcer.

If you have any bleeding, it is important to go to your doctor and get it checked. Your doctor won't think you are wasting their time with this sort of symptom. Your doctor will almost certainly do a rectal examination. This means the doctor puts a gloved finger into your back passage and feels for anything abnormal. If you have piles, this may diagnose them. If your doctor can't feel anything abnormal, or feels a lump that may be a cancer, you will need to go to hospital for more bowel cancer tests.

 

Seeing your GP

If you are worried about symptoms that you think could be caused by bowel cancer, go to your GP. Your doctor will take account of your age and symptoms to decide whether there is a possibility of bowel cancer. Depending on your age and your symptoms, you may need to see a bowel cancer specialist urgently, particularly if you have

  • A lump in the right side of your abdomen or back passage that your GP can feel
  • Anaemia
  • A change in bowel habits to looser or more frequent stools, lasting 4 to 6 weeks or more
  • Bleeding from the back passage

There is information about how your age affects the urgency of these symptoms on the should I see a bowel cancer specialist page.

 

More information about bowel cancer symptoms

The earlier a cancer is picked up, the easier it is to treat and the more likely the treatment is to be successful. So it is important to see your GP as soon as possible if you notice worrying symptoms.  Cancer Research UK has a section on how to spot cancer early, which includes a video on how to spot bowel cancer early. There is also an interactive tool you can use to find out about the possible warning signs and symptoms of cancer. 

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Updated: 2 April 2014