Bowel cancer signs: Symptoms include ribbon-like poo

Bowel cancer symptoms explained by Doctor Richard Roope

Bowel cancer is a general term for cancer that begins in the large bowel – a part of the digestive system that includes the colon and rectum. The symptoms of bowel cancer can be subtle and do not necessarily make you feel ill. Many symptoms can surface when you go to the toilet. According to Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA), narrow, ribbon-like poo is an early warning sign.


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Other common early warning signs include:

  • Rectal bleeding, either bright or dark red in color
  • Tenesmus – the feeling that you have to empty your bowel but nothing passes
  • Anaemia caused by iron deficiency
  • Persistent abdominal pain
  • Unexplained weight loss.

“Although these symptoms may be caused by other, less serious conditions, such as haemorrhoids, ulcers and Crohn’s disease, they should be discussed with a doctor,” advises CTCA.

The health body adds: “Blood in the stool, even if it only appears intermittently, should never be ignored.”

What to expect from a diagnosis

“When you first see a GP, they’ll ask about your symptoms and whether you have a family history of bowel cancer,” explains the NHS.

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Ribbon-like poo is a warning sign

Bowel cancer symptoms: Ribbon-like poo is a warning sign (Image: Getty Images)

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According to the health body, they’ll usually carry out a simple examination of your bottom, known as a digital rectal examination (DRE), and examine your tummy (abdomen).

This is a useful way of checking whether there are any lumps in your tummy or bottom (rectum).

“The tests can be uncomfortable, and many people find an examination of their bottom a bit embarrassing, but they take less than a minute,” notes the NHS.

Am I at risk?

The exact cause of bowel cancer is unknown. However, research has shown several factors may make you more likely to develop it.

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Your risk of developing bowel (colon and rectal) cancer depends on many things including age, genetics and lifestyle factors.

Having one or more risk factors doesn’t mean that you will definitely get bowel cancer, however.

Many studies have shown that eating lots of red and processed meat increases the risk of bowel cancer.

“It is estimated that around 13 out of 100 bowel cancer cases (around 13 percent) in the UK are linked to eating these meats,” reports Cancer Research UK.

Studies suggest physical activity reduces your risk

How to reduce cancer risk: Studies suggest physical activity reduces your risk (Image: Getty Images)

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Processed meat is any meat that has been treated to preserve it and/or add flavour – for example, bacon, salami, sausages, canned meat, or chicken nuggets.

The government recommends that people eating more than 90 grams of red and processed meat a day should reduce it to 70 grams or less.

A linked risk factor is obesity, which estimates suggest accounts for 11 out of 100 bowel cancers.

Obesity means being very overweight with a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher. And being overweight is a BMI of between 25 and 30.

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The general warning signs of cancer

Bowel cancer symptoms: The general warning signs of cancer (Image: Getty Images)

According to Cancer Research UK, the risk of bowel cancer is higher in people who are obese compared to those who have a healthy BMI.

You can lose weight by eating a healthy diet and engaging in regular exercise.

Emphasising the importance of physical activity, there is strong evidence which shows that people who are more physically active have a lower risk of bowel cancer.

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