Preventing bowel cancer: understanding risks & symptoms

01 April 2015

Mark Flannagan, Chief Executive of the charity Beating Bowel Cancer, explains how we can reduce our risk of being affected by the disease.

Bowel cancer is currently the UK’s second biggest cancer killer but it doesn’t have to be that way because it can be successfully treated in nine out of ten cases if caught at an early stage.

The current high mortality rate is due to the number of people who are sadly not diagnosed until a later stage in the disease by which time the survival rate has dropped to just 1 in 10 cases. Therefore the key to reducing the risk is early diagnosis.

To improve the chances of an early diagnosis, there are a number of things we can do.

Know the symptoms of bowel cancer

It’s very important to be aware of the symptoms of bowel cancer and to go to your GP without delay if you have any concerns. Embarrassment of talking about bums and poo can often put people off talking about their symptoms to their GP. But if you show any of the signs it’s vital to get them checked out. If you feel at all embarrassed about talking to the doctor, write down as many details as possible and give the notes to the doctor. This also ensures that you don’t forget anything of importance during your appointment.

We would advise that you go to your GP if you have any of the following symptoms for three weeks or more:

  • Bleeding from the bottom or blood in your poo
  • A persistent change in bowel habit, especially going more often or looser stools
  • Abdominal pain, especially if severe
  • A lump in your tummy
  • Unexplained weight loss or tiredness

Read more about the symptoms of bowel cancer

Bowel screening

Everyone over the age of 60 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (50 in Scotland) is sent a bowel cancer screening kit through the post every two years and we would urge everyone who is eligible to take it up. 

The test is done in the privacy of your own home and involves collecting small samples of your bowel motion which you wipe on a special card. It’s completed over the course of a few days and then returned in the post to a central laboratory for the results. Unfortunately many people fail to complete the screening kit.

Barry Murphy, 69, from Ealing in London, did not complete the first bowel cancer screening kit which he received through the post. He did however complete the second kit sent two years later - at his wife’s insistence - even though he had no symptoms, and this led to an abnormal result and an eventual diagnosis in 2012. By this time the cancer had spread to his liver. His oncologist told him that his failure to complete the first test would have an impact on his long term prognosis.  

Three years later, Barry is still undergoing treatment and just last month had surgery to remove lymph nodes. As a result Barry is very keen to encourage others of the benefits of completing screening.

He told me: “I know from personal experience how important it is that people take part in the bowel cancer screening programme, which can catch the disease at the very earliest stage before there are any symptoms showing. It can be a bit embarrassing but so worth it as it can make a huge difference to your chances of survival.”

The test may sound a bit embarrassing or unpleasant but it’s quick and easy and it could save your life, so please don’t put it to one side and forget about it.  Remember, any delay can be life-threatening.

In England, the Department of Health are also rolling out an additional screening test called a bowel scope, to work alongside the current one. It’s a one-off test for people aged 55 and is being piloted in a number of locations. Again, we would encourage anyone who has the opportunity of taking part in this test to take advantage of it.

Risk factors for bowel cancer

There is no known cause for bowel cancer.  However the following factors are known to increase your risk:

  • Age - the majority (95%) of bowel cancer cases occur in people over 50, but it can affect anyone of any age
  • Family history of bowel cancer
  • High intake of saturated fats, red meat and particularly processed meat
  • Inactivity, lack of exercise and being overweight
  • Smoking
  • Drinking alcohol regularly
  • If you have diabetes, ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease
  • The inherited conditions FAP and HNPCC

You can’t change some of the factors, such as age and genetics. However you can reduce the risk by cutting down on red meat and processed food, exercising, quitting smoking and reducing your alcohol intake.

As part of Bowel Cancer Awareness Month, Beating Bowel Cancer are encouraging people to support Lift the Lid Day to help raise greater awareness of the disease.

People can support the campaign simply by talking about bowel cancer – whether it is a chat over coffee about their experience of the disease; inspiring someone to go online and learn about the symptoms; or encouraging someone who is worried about the disease to contact their doctor or the Beating Bowel Cancer helpline.

The last word goes to Barry: “If we’re going to stop people dying from embarrassment, we need to get over our reluctance to talk about bums and poo. If we all do our bit to talk about the disease during Bowel Cancer Awareness Month, hopefully we can help lift the taboo and improve survival rates.”

For more information about bowel cancer and further advice on healthy lifestyle choices, visit the charity’s website at

If you have any concerns or queries about bowel cancer, you can also have a confidential chat with one of the charity’s Helpline nurses, on 020 8973 0011 or email

Bowel cancer screening information

The current bowel cancer screening programme is available in all parts of the UK and is completed every two years. If you haven’t received your kit, please contact:

  • NHS Bowel Screening Programme: 0800 707 60 60 for patients in England aged between 60 and 74.
  • Scottish Bowel Screening Helpline: 0800 0121 833 for patients aged between 50 and 74.
  • Welsh Bowel Screening Helpline: 0800 294 3370 for patients aged between 60 and 74.
  • Northern Irish Bowel Screening Helpline: 0800 015 2514 for patients aged between 60 and 71.

If you’re over the age of screening, you can still request a test by calling the relevant helpline above. Whatever your age, if you’re experiencing symptoms of bowel cancer for three weeks or more, don’t wait for screening, visit your GP.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.