Talking about bowel movements isn’t embarrassing – it can save our lives

Getting diagnosed with stage 3 bowel cancer at the age of 39 was a real shock. I’m a GP, active mother of two and always been fit and healthy. I don’t have a family history of cancer or any risk factors, so how could it happen to me?

As a doctor, perhaps I played down my symptoms. Initially I had bloating, cramps and sometimes felt an urgency to go to the toilet, which I put down to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). I occasionally saw blood on the toilet paper, which I thought could be due to a pile as I gave birth a few years before. I felt very tired, but I didn’t find it unusual as I had a busy lifestyle.

As my symptoms got worse including my bowel movements, I finally went to see my GP. My stools became thin and ribbon-like because there was a tumour obstructing it. After some scans and tests, I was referred for specialist treatment and diagnosed with bowel cancer.

Anyone who has ever had the misfortune of receiving life changing news will know how I felt – hopelessly lost, distraught, and directionless, and at other times inconsolably upset, angry, and irritated.

I was scared as I went in for the operation to remove the tumour. I didn’t know what I was going to wake up to. Thankfully, my tumour was removed completely and I had three months of chemotherapy to reduce the risk of the cancer returning.

Doesn’t bowel cancer affect older people?

Every year, 42,900 new cases of bowel cancer are diagnosed in the UK, with 2,600 of these in people under the age of 50. Even though 90% of cases are people aged over 50, I know first-hand that it can affect anyone, of any age.

If we know what our normal bowel habits are, we can spot when something doesn’t feel right. We should listen to our bodies and keep an eye on how regularly we go and check stools for their shape and consistency. And also keep an eye out for any blood in the toilet or tissue before you flush. Other symptoms may include tummy pain, bloating, losing weight without trying and feeling very tired for no reason.

I feel embarrassed talking about toilet habits

Even as health professionals, some of us feel uncomfortable speaking about our bowel movements and we may brush off symptoms as nothing. In fact, coming from a South Asian background, I know there are some things we never spoke about openly and remember ‘cancer’ never being mentioned in most homes. So, I feel even more passionate about sharing my story to raise awareness and to help alleviate the stigma surrounding this cancer.

Doctors are used to examining all parts of the body and hear about things like this all the time. So, if you think something doesn’t feel right, don’t feel embarrassed and contact your GP surgery – particularly if you have had symptoms for three weeks or more, no matter how old you are. It might not be cancer, but you need to know what’s going on.

Can I get screened?

If you’re aged 56 -74 years old, you’ll receive a free NHS bowel cancer screening kit every two years. The screening programme is being extended and now includes most 54-year-olds, and in the next year, is expected to include everyone over 50. Regular screening can help prevent bowel cancer or find it at an early stage, making it easier to treat.

The kit will be posted to you and following some simple steps can save your life. You take a small sample at home and return it in a sealed bottle in the envelope provided. It is tested for small traces of blood that aren’t visible by eye. The presence of blood doesn’t mean you have bowel cancer, but further tests are usually advised.

If you or anyone in your family gets a screening kit through the door, I plead with you – don’t put it off. It takes just a moment, but can help spot signs of cancer even if you don’t have any obvious symptoms.

April marks Bowel Cancer Awareness Month, so I’d like to remind people that bowel cancer is the third most common type of cancer, and the UK’s second biggest cancer killer. So instead of feeling embarrassed, let’s talk about health to friends, family and colleagues, let’s get advice from our GP surgery when we need to and let’s get screened when it’s available to us. It really can save our lives.

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Dr Anisha Patel is a GP in West Sussex and regularly makes TV and radio appearances to raise awareness of bowel cancer. She is also the author of Amazon’s bestselling book, ‘Everything you hoped you’d never need to know about bowel cancer’.