Do you know the symptoms of colorectal cancer?

Detecting colorectal cancer early is fundamental to survival and to getting a better outcome for the patient. The UK government’s screening programme is helping to do detect more patients early and reduce premature deaths, and there are also some great awareness campaigns that are increasing public knowledge of the disease. The classic symptoms of colorectal cancer are the four horsemen of the apocalypse:

  • bleeding from your bottom or in your stools (your poo). This could be haemorrhoids so don’t panic, but it isn’t normal
  • a change in your bowel habits (how frequently you go to the toilet) or in appearance of your stools (colour, shape, consistency). Don’t panic if it’s a one-off – that’s probably something you ate. But if your poo is consistently different from how you think it should be, then get it checked out. Very thin shaped poo is a classic sign there’s a problem. As is, a feeling that you’re not emptying your bowels properly.
  • regular pain or discomfort – particularly after meals and when you want to go to the toilet. Persistent discomfort is not normal
  • unexplained weight loss. This might be accompanied by a loss of appetite.

Of these symptoms, most people focus on the first as the major sign of colorectal cancer. ‘I’ve not bleeding, so all’s well’, they’ll reassure themselves. But all might not be well. Did you know that people with right sided colorectal cancer may not have these symptoms at all?

Right sided colorectal cancer is most often diagnosed because:

  • you’re suffering from anaemia – which manifests as paleness, tiredness, inability to keep warm, breathlessness, fainting etc. If you’re blacking out make an urgent appointment to see a doctor. Blacking out is not normal and even if it isn’t cancer you need to find out what is causing it before you hurt yourself.
  • there’s a mass in your abdomen. This is because these cancers can grow quite large before they’re detected
  • weight loss.

When I was suffering from right sided colorectal cancer I really didn’t feel well for months. I was tired – bone crunchingly tired. I was blacking out. My memory and concentration were shot. I wasn’t healing well. I had big black bags under my eyes. And I was losing weight. But there was no blood in my stools.

I made the classic mistake of thinking it was just that time of life, or stress, or overworking. Please don’t make the same mistakes: don’t try and self diagnose. If you’re not well for more than a couple of weeks go to the doctor and have a simple blood test. You may just need vitamins and/or iron but why take the risk that it’s something more serious? Of the people I’ve met with colorectal cancer, the vast majority say they knew there was something wrong and wished they’d gone to the doctor sooner. For some, the delay will have cost them their lives. Don’t be one of those people. Caught early, the outcome can be good and you can live a long and healthy life afterwards.

If you’re a woman you present a challenge to doctors in diagnosing right sided colorectal cancer in particular. You may be anaemic because of heavy periods, for example. But if your periods are light – eg you have a coil fitted or are on the pill – or non existent, then make sure you mention this to the doctor. It’s very important to help him/her rule out periods as the cause of anaemia. If your periods are heavy but you have other symptoms then mention these. Don’t diagnose yourself (‘I’m anaemic due to heavy periods’) and don’t hide information from the doctor (‘that blood in my stool was just a one off so I won’t mention it’).

Be vigilant. Have open conversations with your friends and relatives. Ask them if they know the symptoms or have any of the symptoms. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about: everyone has to go to the toilet – even the Queen. Think about toddlers. They’re proud of their poo. Okay, maybe don’t show it to everyone like a three year old does, but don’t be embarrassed about talking about it either – especially to doctors who have long since overcome any embarrassment about bodily functions.

Colorectal cancer is one of the most curable cancers if caught early. Don’t die because of silly embarrassment or procrastination.

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