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The Importance of Identifying Bowel Cancer Early

 Bowel cancer can be lethal, which is highly unfortunate because many people who have it exhibit “red flag” symptoms that aren’t picked up on when they should be, according to a study published in the British Journal of Cancer.


In fact, some 16% of emergency bowel cancer patients see their GP at least three times with the relevant symptoms.These so-called “red flag” symptoms were noted to be less common in patients diagnosed at an emergency stage rather than early on in their illness. 

The study was conducted by researchers from University College London and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical medicine. They specifically focused on events in bowel cancer patients’ lives in the five years leading up to their diagnosis.

National Cancer Registry data linked to GP data for 1,606 patients visiting over 200 GP practices was used as the sample for the study. The findings the researchers made were eye-opening – some 35% of all diagnosed colon cancers and 15% of all rectal cancers were diagnosed after the patient presented in an emergency situation.

While it must be said that many of these patients did not exhibit the most obvious bowel cancer symptoms, making it harder for GPs to diagnose them early on in the illness, the study established that 17.5% of colon cancer patients and 23% of rectal cancer patients did in fact exhibit “red flag” symptoms. This means that there was an opportunity for an earlier diagnosis to be made that was missed.

A Study Participant’s Story


A middle-aged man named Paul, who was suffering from bowel cancer, wasn’t diagnosed until he had visited his GP several times over. Noticing blood in his stools was the catalyst for his GP to send him for more in-depth testing.

His GP had told him to simply lose weight in an attempt to beat the constant lethargy he was feeling, but this didn’t really change much. Even the results of his tests didn’t pick up on what was underlying, so he decided to visit a private specialist to get to the bottom of the problem.

The results of the internal exam were not good. Within a few days of seeing the specialist, Paul was diagnosed with bowel cancer that had also spread to his liver and lungs. Within a week of his diagnosis, he was on the operating table for the first of a series of major operations to remove the cancer.

More than two feet of his bowels were removed, together with half of his liver. He also had to undergo chemotherapy. While his energy levels have recovered, Paul says that he’ll never be the same as he was, however he feels blessed to be alive.

His case is indicative of typical patterns found pertaining to patients who are eventually diagnosed with bowel cancer. These patients tend to visit their doctor more frequently in the year running up to their diagnosis. As a suggestion to prevent diagnoses being missed, the researchers proposed employing specially-trained nurses to support GPs and act as a safety net during consultations.


What to Look Out For


Most common colon cancer symptoms in the year before diagnosis:

  • abdominal pain
  • anemia
  • diarrhea
  • rectal bleeding

Most common rectal cancer symptoms in the year before diagnosis:

  • rectal bleeding
  • change in bowel habits
  • diarrhea
  • abdominal pain

A Word from the Study’s Lead Researcher


Cristina Renzi, the lead researcher from University College London, said the study clearly showed that those who presented in an emergency situation did not fare as well as the patients who were diagnosed by their GP.

She added that multiple visits to the GP prior to their diagnoses represented multiple missed opportunities for earlier identification, and stressed the need to find ways to ensure these patients are diagnosed as soon as possible.

Studies such as this highlight the necessity of giving GPs the support they need to be able to diagnose and refer patients promptly due to the nature of the illness, she concluded.


Content Source: BBC

Images and cover image by Deposit Photos

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