‘Red Flag’ Blog Series

‘Bowel cancer’ is a general term, covering cancer of the large intestine (the colon) and of the rectum. Of these, the more common is colon cancer and is in fact the most common type of cancer of the digestive system and the fourth most common in the UK. A delay in diagnosing or treating the condition can constitute medical negligence.

So what are the potential signs of colon cancer?

Commonly occurring symptoms can be any of the following:

  • fatigue and weight loss;
  • blood in the stool, or rectal bleeding;
  • iron-deficiency anaemia;
  • unexplained abdominal pain;
  • a change in bowel habits i.e. diarrhoea or looser stools for longer than 4 weeks; or
  • a feeling of needing to strain as if you need to pass stool.

Your GP should be concerned by any one of these symptoms and should investigate further as soon as possible. The earlier a cancer is picked up, the easier it is to treat and the better the chances of successful treatment.

A GP has a large number of tests available to them that will pick up on this cancer, ranging from manually examining the abdomen or rectum, blood tests,  radiography and MRIs, through to colonoscopies and biopsies.

Are some people more at risk than others?

Age is always a risk factor of cancer. Bowel cancer is no exception. Equally, a family history of bowel cancer would suggest that you might be more susceptible. Your GP or doctor should be mindful of both of these factors.

Other groups who are particularly at risk are those who suffer from ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease, diabetes sufferers, previous cancer patients and some ethnic groups, particularly people with an Ashkenazi Jewish background.

How is colon cancer treated?

Colon cancer can be treated using surgery and/or chemotherapy.

Keyhole surgery is a very efficient way to remove a primary tumour in the bowel. When doing this, a surgeon will remove an area of healthy tissue around the cancer, to ensure that all cancerous cells are removed. If necessary, large sections of the intestines can be removed this way. In fact, if the cancer is extensive, the entirety of the colon can be removed without seriously impacting normal bowel movements.

If the cancer has metastasised (spread from the primary tumour to other parts of the body), then chemotherapy will be used in addition to, or instead of, surgery. With advances in medicine, the success rates of chemotherapy are steadily improving.

But what actually is colon cancer?

Put simply, a cancer is when a normal cell changes and grows uncontrollably. The change can arise due to a naturally-occurring mutation, or due to damage caused by chemical or environmental factors. The uncontrollable growth steadily creates a mass of these abnormal cells and this is what we call a ‘tumour’.

In the colon, the cancer most commonly starts in the cells of the lining of the bowel.  The lining replaces itself at a very rapid rate. With so much cell replication, unfortunately, things can go wrong, producing a cancerous cell which then multiplies.

Potential medical negligence claims involving bowel cancer:

  1. A delay in diagnosing and treating bowel cancer
  2. Failures in the management of bowel cancer
  3. False-positive bowel cancer test results, leading to significant psychological consequences and potentially unnecessary treatment.

A delay in treating bowel cancer will mean that the cancer will be more advanced and the treatment options are likely to be more limited and will have to be more aggressive. A doctors’ failure to detect or manage bowel cancer from early on in the disease can have very serious repercussions for the patient.

While cancer can affect anyone, a healthy and active lifestyle has been shown to decrease the risks.

Equally, cancer can be successfully treated when caught early – knowledge is an essential part of this. Knowing what to look out for and what you can expect from your GP or doctor can be indispensible.