Bowel cancer: The ‘vague’ pain that can signal the disease – and it’s not in your bowel

Fitness & Health:

Bowel cancer is one of the four most common cancers in the UK alongside breast, prostate, and lung cancer; of these, bowel cancer is the fourth most common. Every year, around 42,900 new cases of bowel cancer are diagnosed in the UK. Of these, there are around 16,808 deaths and the 10-year survival rate is around 53 percent. Bowel cancer has recently spiralled into the news thanks in large part to the work of the late campaigner, Dame Deborah James, who passed away from the disease at the age of 40 in June. While everyone should quite rightly check their poo for signs of the disease, its symptoms are not just confined to one’s effluence.

According to Stanford Medicine, other symptoms of bowel cancer which don’t flow from someone’s bowel movements include signs which they describe as “vague”.

Symptoms listed along these lines are dull abdominal pain, fatigue, and anaemia; this is a condition where the body lack’s enough healthy red blood cells to carry oxygen around the body.

In the early stages of bowel cancer, also known as colon cancer, Stanford Medical says the cancer often produces “no symptoms. Early detection also means that cancer is less likely to have spread to nearby lymph nodes and other organs”.

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This message of early diagnosis and early detection is essential for all cancer patients; once the disease metastases and spreads, it becomes much more difficult to treat.


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As a result, it is essential for patients to be aware of the main symptoms of bowel cancer so they can take action by booking an appointment with a GP and get checked.

The main symptoms of bowel cancer are:
• Persistent blood in the poo
• Persistent change in your bowel habit
• Persistent lower abdominal pain.

While these symptoms may be unnerving, the NHS adds: “Most people with these symptoms do not have bowel cancer. Other health problems can cause similar symptoms.”

Nevertheless, it is important to get checked just in case; experts say it is far better to get checked and find nothing wrong than to wait and for that problem to develop into something more.


The impact Dame Deborah James had on bowel cancer awareness cannot be underestimated; not only did the former deputy head teacher as a beacon of inspiration during her life, her experiences caused people to consider their own after it.

Evidence of this lies in the number of people coming forward for bowel cancer checks in 2022; said checks are now at a record high according to the latest figures from NHS England.

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Between the months of May and July this year, 170,500 people were referred for checks by their GP; a wave caused by the campaigning of James and a figure 80,000 higher than it was in 2020.

Speaking about the spike, the national cancer director for NHS England, Cally Palmer said: “Thanks to the brave and relentless campaigning of Dame Deborah James, bowel cancer has come to the forefront of a national conversation on catching cancer as early as possible, and the fact that we have seen record numbers of people coming forward for bowel cancer checks shows people are taking the illness seriously and speaking to their GPs about it.”

Palmer added: “It is so important that we continue the work of Dame Deborah to raise awareness of bowel cancer and save more lives, so to anyone who has noticed symptoms, please do come forward.”

Meanwhile, Bowel Cancer UK’s Genevieve Edwards, their chief executive, commented: “People visiting [the Bowel Cancer UK website] has never been higher, with tens of thousands more people seeking information about the symptoms of the disease since Dame Deborah James’ tragic death.

“There was also a spike in people affected by bowel cancer posting on our forum, contacting our Ask the Nurse service, and we know that people have visited their GP as a result of hearing her story.”

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What this all means in practice is not just that more people know about bowel cancer, but that some lives could be saved as a result of some people taking the time both to look back, and to look down as well.

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