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Bowel cancer: what you need to know

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Karis Betts

Health Expert, Cancer Research UK

Bowel cancer is the fourth most common cancer in the UK, but over half of cases are preventable – and thanks to research, more people are surviving the disease than ever before.


But, isn’t getting cancer just a lottery? Though you might think cancer is all down to genes or just bad luck, there are plenty of things we can do to reduce our chances of developing the disease. Some things are beyond our control – cancer risk rises with age as there’s been more time for genetic mistakes to develop in our cells.

Although there are no guarantees, you can reduce your risk by keeping a healthy weight, not smoking, cutting down on red or processed meat, and eating a balanced diet with lots of high-fibre food like whole grains and vegetables.

What should I look out for?

You don’t need to check your body in a certain way or learn a list of symptoms, just get to know what’s normal for you, and tell your doctor about anything that’s unusual or doesn’t go away. This includes your poo: what it looks like and how often you go. You may feel embarrassed, but if something’s not right, it’s worth getting it checked out.

Should I go for screening if I feel fine?

Screening is for people without symptoms, because it aims to spot the signs of potential cancer before you can. Nine in ten people survive bowel cancer when it’s caught at an early stage, so screening can save lives by finding cancer when treatment is more likely to work. But no test is perfect – screening can miss cancers, or find cancers that wouldn’t cause a person any harm – so whether you accept the invitation or not is up to you, and make sure you read the information included to help you decide.

How do they screen for bowel cancer?

Bowel cancer screening involves checking for tiny traces of blood in a sample of poo, which can be a warning sign. Tests are sent in the post for you to complete privately at home. There are a few ways to collect your poo sample: put a plastic tub in the toilet bowl, or use a plastic bag or glove over your hand. Then just wipe the sample on a card, put that in the hygienic envelope and post it back.

Do I really have to put my poo in the post?

It might sound a bit unpleasant, but it doesn’t take long. A new test is being introduced, which is easier because it only needs one sample. This has the potential to detect more cancers, but with the health system in crisis, there aren’t enough cancer specialists to meet demand – so we’re urging the Government to invest in more NHS staff to carry out these tests and give patients the best chance of survival.

Find out more and join our campaign at cruk.org.uk/shouldertoshoulder

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