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Don't miss the early warning signs

PUBLISHED: 12:33 07 April 2015 | UPDATED: 12:33 07 April 2015

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April is Bowel Cancer Awareness Month. Suffolk GP Dr Matt Piccaver talks prevention, what to look for and the benefits of early diagnosis

I can still remember my first week at work. Fresh out of medical school and a long summer spent punting on the Cam, I landed on a surgical ward.

The August heat and my elevated adrenaline levels created a nauseating miasma. There is nothing quite so petrifying for a junior doctor as the first day on the wards.

Medical school fills you with knowledge, but that in no way prepared me for what lay ahead. My trepidation was nothing compared to those of whom I was now, in part, responsible.

Row upon row of surgical patients stared back at me. A sea of names and faces, and a list of diagnoses that were familiar to me from the pages of text books, now rendered in flesh. Many of the patients now under my care were those recovering from surgery, usually for bowel cancer.

According to Cancer Research UK, bowel cancer is the forth commonest cancer in the UK. There are around 40,000 new cases every year, and the vast majority of bowel cancer occurs in those over 50 years of age. The NHS Bowel Cancer Screening Programme sends testing kits to all people from 60-69 years of age. By looking for trace amounts of blood in a person’s faeces, it is hoped that this will increase the rate of cancer detection, and thus save lives. Those with a positive test are then invited to have a colonoscopy, a camera test looking into the back passage and beyond.

Some people may develop symptoms of bowel cancer. These could include:

A change in bowel habit, or diarrhoea, for several weeks

Bleeding from the bottom

Unexplained weight loss

Unremitting fatigue

A large lump in the abdomen

Severe abdominal pain

These symptoms are by no means exhaustive. Many of these symptoms are features of a whole range of other diseases, from irritable bowel syndrome to piles. Regardless, it is important to see your doctor.

If you’ve been diagnosed with bowel cancer, what is the next step? This very much depends on the finer details of the cancer. Where in the bowel is it? How far has the cancer spread? There are usually more detailed scans, frequently surgery, and possibly chemotherapy.

What can be done to prevent bowel cancer? As with much of the advice we give, this is in part due to lifestyle. The current advice is a diet low in processed and red meats, high in dietary fibre, fruit and vegetables. Don’t drink too much alcohol.

We should aim to avoid becoming obese, and engage in about two-and-a-half hours of physical activity a week. By this I mean the sort of exercise that gets your heart pumping and brings on a sweat.

If half of us will be diagnosed with cancer during our lives, we need to get cancer aware. If you have any of the symptoms above, get in touch with your doctor. If we’re to beat cancer, we need to know the symptoms, see our doctor, and get diagnosed as soon as possible.

Dr Matt Piccaver is a GP in Suffolk. He’s the father of two small boys. A passionate advocate for the patient, he believes that no one has a monopoly on knowledge.

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