A new study has highlighted the four “red flag” symptoms people should watch out for in order to diagnose bowel cancer as early as possible.
The devastating form of cancer – also known as colorectal cancer – is the fourth most common variation of the disease in the UK and accounts for 11% of new cancer cases each year. It is also the second most deadly, killing around 16,000 people each year.
And experts, including with the NHS in the North East, are concerned that the illness is becoming more prevalent in younger people. The number of under-50s diagnosed has risen sharply, and last month Professor Sir Liam Donaldson – chair of the North East and North Cumbria integrated care board and formerly the England’s chief medical officer – warned “this is a growing issue of growing importance. moving on quickly, very quickly”.
As with any disease, the sooner you spot the symptoms the sooner you can seek treatment. Now, research from Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis in the US has highlighted four key symptoms which point to an elevated risk of developing early-onset bowel cancer.
As part of the study, published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, the team analysed data on more than 5,000 patients with early-onset bowel cancer – classified as cancer that occurs before the age of 50. They determined that anywhere between three months and two years prior to diagnosis the patients were likely to experience four symptoms.
- Abdominal pain
- Rectal bleeding
- Iron deficiency anaemia.
The researchers found that having just a single one of the symptoms almost doubled someone’s bowel cancer risk, while having two symptoms increased risk by more than 3.5 times, and having three or more boosted the risk by more than 6.5 times.
Senior investigator Yin Cao explained: “Colorectal cancer is not simply a disease affecting older people; we want younger adults to be aware of and act on these potentially very telling signs and symptoms – particularly because people under 50 are considered to be at low risk, and they don’t receive routine colorectal cancer screening.
“It’s also crucial to spread awareness among primary care doctors, gastroenterologists and emergency medicine doctors. To date, many early-onset colorectal cancers are detected in emergency rooms, and there often are significant diagnostic delays with this cancer.”
Dr Cao said two symptoms in particular – rectal bleeding and iron deficiency anaemia, a condition in which there are not enough healthy red blood cells to carry oxygen – point to the need for timely endoscopy and follow-up. This comes as statistics – from the US -show that people born there in 1990 have double the risk of bowel cancer and four times the risk of rectal cancer compared to people born forty years earlier.
In 2021, the US Preventive Services Task Force lowered the recommended age for bowel cancer screening from 50 to 45. Bowel cancer screening in the UK is currently offered to people aged between 60 and 74 every two years.
However, since 2021 the programme has been gradually expanding to include people aged 50 to 59. If you are eligible you will be automatically sent an at-home screening test kit.
First study author Cassandra Fritz added: “It usually takes about three months to get a diagnosis from the time a person first goes to the doctor with one or more of the red flag signs and symptoms we’ve identified. But in this analysis, we found that some young adults had symptoms for up to two years prior to their diagnoses.
“That may be part of the reason many of these younger patients had more advanced disease at the time of diagnosis than what we normally see in older people who get screened regularly.”
According to the American Cancer Society, although the death rate from bowel cancer has been dropping for several decades in older adults, more younger people are diagnosed with the disease at advanced stages, and many are dying of the disease.
“Since the majority of early-onset colorectal cancer cases have been and will continue to be diagnosed after symptom presentation, it is crucial to recognize these red-flag signs and symptoms promptly and conduct a diagnostic work-up as soon as possible,” Cao added.
“By doing so, we can diagnose the disease earlier, which in turn can reduce the need for more aggressive treatment and improve patients’ quality of life and survival rates.”
The NHS lists the main symptoms of bowel cancer as:
- Changes in your poo, such as having softer poo, diarrhoea or constipation that is not usual for you
- Needing to poo more or less often than usual for you
- Blood in your poo, which may look red or black
- Bleeding from your bottom
- Often feeling like you need to poo, even if you’ve just been to the toilet
- Tummy pain
- Losing weight without trying
- Feeling very tired for no reason.
If you experience any symptoms of bowel cancer you should see your GP.
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