Bowel Cancer Awareness: What GPs Should Know

As you may already know, last month was Bowel Cancer Awareness Month: an annual campaign organised by Bowel Cancer UK. The focus this year was on the many different people with bowel cancer and how it affects their lives.

Bowel cancer affects thousands of people in the UK, but it is more treatable the earlier it is detected. For this reason, awareness of bowel cancer among GPs is crucial.

Why awareness of bowel cancer is important

A closer look at some facts reveals why bowel cancer awareness is so important. In the UK, around 42,000 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer each year, making it the fourth most common cancer in the country. It accounts for 10% of all cancer diagnoses in the UK, equating to one person being diagnosed with bowel cancer every 15 minutes.

Sadly, around 16,000 people die from bowel cancer each year, making it the second most common cause of cancer deaths after lung cancer. However, bowel cancer is one of the most treatable forms of cancer there is, as long as it is detected early. When bowel cancer is diagnosed at the earliest stage, 9 out of 10 people will survive for 5 years or more. Comparatively, only 1 in 10 will survive bowel cancer when they are diagnosed during the late stages of the disease.

Signs and symptoms of bowel cancer GPs should know

GPs are often the first port of call for patients with concerns about their health. Knowing the symptoms of bowel cancer is a first essential step towards early diagnosis, successful treatment and good survival rates for patients.

Patients may have bowel cancer if they report the following symptoms:

  • A persistent change in their bowel habits, typified by going to the toilet more often and passing looser stools
  • Persistent blood in their stools that occurs for no obvious reason (e.g. hemorrhoids) and is accompanied by a change in bowel habits
  • Persistent lower abdominal pain, discomfort or bloating that is always provoked by eating. This may be combined with a loss of appetite and accompanied by significant, unintentional weight loss
  • A bowel obstruction, as indicated by abdominal pain caused by eating, unintentional weight loss and abdominal swelling.

Other bowel cancer risk factors may also be at play. For example, 94% of new bowel cancer cases are diagnosed in people over 50, so age can be a factor. An unhealthy lifestyle, a family history of bowel cancer and a history of prior bowel conditions (such as Crohn’s disease and non-cancerous growths) are other factors that GPs should consider.

Common misconceptions about bowel cancer

Although bowel cancer is most commonly diagnosed in patients aged 50 and over, it can affect people of any age. In fact, around 2,500 people under 50 are diagnosed with bowel cancer in the UK each year. Many find it difficult to get a diagnosis precisely because of the belief that bowel cancer only affects older adults. A delayed diagnosis can greatly affect a patient’s chances of survival, making awareness of bowel cancer and its symptoms all the more important.

Luckily, measures are being taken to combat misconceptions about bowel cancer in young people. In 2017, a risk tool to help GPs identify symptoms of serious bowel conditions in patients under 50 was introduced to encourage more timely diagnoses. More recently, Public Health England announced that the bowel cancer screening age will be lowered to 50. While this strategy is still in the roll-out stage, GP awareness plays as crucial a role as ever in the early diagnosis of bowel cancer in people of all ages.

How can GPs learn more about bowel cancer?

In April 2019, to mark Bowel Cancer Awareness Month, Bowel Cancer UK compiled a number of resources for healthcare professionals, including free information packs and links to publications that will increase GPs’ understanding of the disease. These can be accessed all year-round to help raise awareness of bowel cancer.

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