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What are the symptoms?
In its early stages, bowel cancer may have no symptoms. This is why screening is important to increase the chance of an early diagnosis. However, many people with bowel cancer do experience symptoms. These can include:
- blood in the stools or on the toilet paper
- a change in bowel habit, such as diarrhoea, constipation or smaller, more frequent bowel movements
- a change in appearance or consistency of bowel movements (e.g. narrower stools or mucus in stools)
- a feeling of fullness or bloating in the abdomen or a strange sensation in the rectum, often during a bowel movement
- feeling that the bowel hasn’t emptied completely
- unexplained weight loss
- weakness or fatigue
- rectal or anal pain
- a lump in the rectum or anus
- abdominal pain or swelling
- a low red blood cell count (anaemia), which can cause tiredness and weakness
- rarely, a blockage in the bowel.
Not everyone with these symptoms has bowel cancer. Other conditions, such as haemorrhoids, diverticulitis (inflammation of pouches in the bowel wall) or an anal fissure (cracks in the skin lining the anus), can also cause these changes. Changes in bowel function are common and often do not indicate a serious problem. However, any amount of bleeding is not normal and you should see your doctor for a check-up.
Which health professionals will I see?
Your general practitioner (GP) will arrange the first tests to assess your symptoms, or further tests if you have had a positive screening test). If these tests do not rule out cancer, you will usually be referred to a specialist, such as a colorectal surgeon or a gastroenterologist. The specialist will arrange further tests. If bowel cancer is diagnosed, the specialist will consider treatment options. Often these will be discussed with other health professionals at what is known as a multidisciplinary team (MDT) meeting. During and after treatment, you may see a range of health professionals who specialise in different aspects of your care.
|GP||assists with treatment decisions; provides ongoing care in partnership with specialists|
|colorectal surgeon||diagnoses bowel cancer and performs bowel surgery|
|gastroenterologist||diagnoses and treats disorders of the digestive system, including bowel cancer; may perform endoscopy|
|medical oncologist||treats cancer with drug therapies such as chemotherapy, targeted therapy and immunotherapy (systemic treatment)|
|radiation oncologist||treats cancer by prescribing and overseeing a course of radiation therapy|
|cancer care coordinator||coordinates your care, liaises with MDT members, and supports you and your family throughout treatment; may be a clinical nurse consultant (CNC) or colorectal cancer nurse|
|operating room staff||include anaesthetists, technicians and nurses who prepare you for surgery and care for you during the operation and recovery|
|nurse||administers drugs and provides care, information and support throughout treatment|
|stomal therapy nurse||provides information about surgery and can support you to adjust to life with a temporary or permanent stoma|
|dietitian||recommends an eating plan to follow while you are in treatment and recovery|
|genetic counsellor||provides advice for people with a strong family history of bowel cancer or with a genetic condition linked to bowel cancer|
|social worker||links you to support services and helps you with emotional, practical or financial issues|
|physiotherapist, occupational therapist||assist with physical and practical problems, including restoring movement and mobility after treatment, and recommending aids and equipment|
|counsellor, psychologist||help you manage your emotional response to diagnosis and treatment|
Understanding Bowel CancerDownload resource
This information is reviewed by
This information was last reviewed January 2021 by the following expert content reviewers: A/Prof David A Clark, Colorectal Surgeon, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, and The University of Queensland, QLD, and The University of Sydney, NSW; A/Prof Siddhartha Baxi, Radiation Oncologist and Medical Director, GenesisCare Gold Coast, QLD; Dr Hooi Ee, Specialist Gastroenterologist and Head, Department of Gastroenterology, Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, WA; Annie Harvey, Consumer; A/Prof Louise Nott, Medical Oncologist, Icon Cancer Centre, Hobart, TAS; Caley Schnaid, Accredited Practising Dietitian, GenesisCare, St Leonards and Frenchs Forest, NSW; Chris Sibthorpe, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Queensland; Dr Alina Stoita, Gastroenterologist and Hepatologist, St Vincent’s Hospital Sydney, NSW; Catherine Trevaskis, Gastrointestinal Cancer Specialist Nurse, Canberra Hospital, ACT; Richard Vallance, Consumer.