Bowel cancer is one of the most common cancers in Australia, but recovery rates are favourable when it's detected and treated early. Being aware of the symptoms can help you identify when to see your doctor. However, there's unfortunately still a stigma attached to talking about your bowel habits, and people often feel too embarrassed to speak to their doctor or fear the testing process for bowel cancer will make them feel uncomfortable. Knowing what to expect can remove some of the anxiety and worry you have about visiting doctors, so here's an overview of the symptoms and screening process for bowel cancer:
If you are experiencing the following symptoms, your doctor will want to screen you for bowel cancer:
- Bleeding from the back passage after a bowel movement
- Rectal or abdominal pain
- Unexplained weight loss
- Frequently having to strain when you move your bowels
Screening for bowel cancer is quick and painless. Faecal occult blood testing is used to determine if there are traces of blood in your faeces that can't be seen by the naked eye. Your doctor will give you a test kit, and you simply have to collect a stool sample and transfer a tiny amount onto a special testing card. You can collect the sample at home and mail it to a testing lab for analysis. You'll receive your results within a couple of weeks.
Bleeding in your colon or small intestine can be caused by other conditions, such as undiagnosed bowel disease, but a positive faecal occult test result would warrant further investigation in the form of a colonoscopy and biopsies of the lining of your intestines to check for cancerous cells. A colonoscopy typically takes less than half an hour to perform and requires no recovery time. Your doctor simply uses a very thin scope to have a good look at your bowels. You'll need to take a laxative beforehand, but there's no recovery time and the procedure is painless.
Undergoing a colonoscopy allows your doctor to determine if there are polyps on the wall of your intestines. Polyps are small growths that can become cancerous and are often an early internal sign of bowel cancer. A colonoscopy also enables your doctor to spot cancerous tissue, and when this is picked up early, your doctor may suggest medication to halt the progress of the cancer or surgery to remove the affected sections of bowel.
If your bowel habits have changed recently, set your embarrassment aside and make an appointment with your GP. They've heard it all before, and a simple test that takes only a few minutes to carry out could save your life.