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April is Bowel Cancer Awareness Month. Bowel cancer is the 4th most common cancer in the UK and is slightly more common in men than women. BBC journalist Jeremy Bowen recently revealed his own diagnosis of bowel cancer to help increase awareness. Here we explain what symptoms to look out for, what bowel screening is, and what you can do to reduce your risk. We also let you know where you can get further information and support.

Know what’s normal for you

Whether you go 3 times a day or 3 times a week, it’s important to be aware of your normal bowel habits. That way you will recognise any changes. Most people experience some changes, such as constipation or diarrhoea, every now and then. But if you notice changes that last for a few weeks and there’s no obvious reason, then it’s time to go and see your GP.

Other changes to look out for

  • blood in or on your poo, or bleeding from the back passage
  • unexplained weight loss
  • pain in your tummy or back passage
  • feeling that you haven’t emptied your bowel properly after you poo
  • unexplained tiredness, dizziness or breathlessness

These changes can be caused by conditions other than bowel cancer, but you should always have them checked by your doctor.

Try not to be embarrassed

Okay - so this is easier said than done. But remember healthcare professionals spend most of their working day dealing with other people’s bodily functions so they are well used to hearing about it. You could always start by saying, ‘This is embarrassing to talk about, but…’. It might feel uncomfortable at the time but it’s important to get checked rather than ignoring it.

Take the bowel cancer screening test

Bowel cancer screening aims to find bowel cancer early, before symptoms develop. About 9 out of 10 bowel cancers (around 90%) can be cured if they are found early.

If you are registered with a GP, you will be offered your first bowel screening test between the ages of 50 and 60. This depends on which country in the UK you live in, as each country has different bowel screening programmes.

The main tests used in bowel cancer screening check for hidden blood in poo, which can be a sign of polyps or bowel cancer. You do the test yourself at home by collecting a small sample of poo. You send the sample to the laboratory where it’s checked for tiny amounts of blood.

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A one-off bowel scope test can also help find bowel polyps and prevent some bowel cancers. The test uses a thin bendy tube with a light and camera on the end to look inside the bowel. Bowel scope screening is starting to be used in England and is being tested in Scotland.

Your screening test will be sent to the address your GP has for you. So make sure your GP has the right contact details.

If you have any symptoms of bowel cancer you should talk to your GP, don’t wait for a screening test.

Reduce your risk of bowel cancer

Over half the bowel cancers in the UK could be prevented by some lifestyle changes. You could try to:

  • eat a healthy diet
  • keep physically active
  • give up smoking
  • limit alcohol.

Where can I get further information and support?

Further information about the NHS bowel screening programmes can be found on their website. We have more information about bowel cancer screening on our website. You can also call our cancer support specialists on 0808 808 00 00. Or, order any of our booklets for free at be.macmillan.org.uk

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