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Symptoms - Bowel cancer

Bowel cancer is the general name for cancer that begins in the large intestine (bowel). It is sometimes called colon or rectal cancer. It depends on where the cancer starts.

Bowel cancer is one of the most common types of cancer in Ireland.

It is the second most common of all cancers in men and the third most common of all cancers in women in Ireland.

Most people diagnosed with it are over the age of 60.

Symptoms of bowel cancer

There are 3 main symptoms of bowel cancer:

  • a change in your bowel habit - which is usually having to poo more and your poo may also become more runny
  • blood in your poo that happens for no clear reason or happens as well as a change in your bowel habit
  • lower abdominal (tummy) pain, bloating or discomfort - that's always caused by eating and happens around the same time as losing your appetite or losing a lot of weight without meaning to

Most people with these symptoms do not have bowel cancer. But you should take these symptoms more seriously:

  • as you get older
  • when they keep happening after you have tried simple treatments

When to seek medical advice

Non-urgent advice: Contact your GP if:

your symptoms last for more than 6 weeks

Bowel obstruction

In some cases, bowel cancer can stop digestive waste passing through the bowel. This is known as a bowel obstruction.

Symptoms of a bowel obstruction can include:

  • tummy pain that comes and goes - the pain happens after you eat and can be severe
  • losing weight without meaning to - with abdominal pain that does not go away
  • swelling of the tummy that does not go away, with abdominal pain
  • vomiting - with swelling of the tummy that does not go away
What we mean by severe pain

Severe pain:

  • always there and so bad it's hard to think or talk
  • you cannot sleep
  • it's very hard to move, get out of bed, go to the bathroom, wash or dress
  • you cannot work due to the pain

Moderate pain:

  • always there
  • makes it hard to concentrate or sleep
  • you can manage to get up, wash or dress

Mild pain:

  • comes and goes
  • is annoying but does not stop you from doing things like going to work

Urgent advice: Call a GP or out-or-hours GP immediately if:

  • you think you have a bowel obstruction

A bowel obstruction is a medical emergency. If a GP is not available, go to the emergency department of your nearest hospital.

What happens at at your GP appointment

When you first talk to your GP, they'll ask about your symptoms and if you have a family history of bowel cancer.

They'll usually do a simple exam of your bottom. This is known as a digital rectal examination. Most people find this a little embarrassing. But it takes less than a minute.

Your GP will also examine your tummy (abdomen). This is a useful way of checking if there are any lumps in your tummy or bottom.

Your GP will also check your blood to see if you have iron deficiency anaemia.

Most people with bowel cancer do not have symptoms of anaemia. But they may have a lack of iron as a result of bleeding from the cancer.

If you have anaemia or symptoms of bowel cancer and have not noticed any signs of bleeding from your bottom, the GP may ask you to do a test.

A small sample of your poo is sent to a lab. Your poo will be checked for tiny amounts of blood, which could be a sign of bowel cancer.

Referral to a specialist

Your GP will refer you for tests in hospital if your symptoms suggest you may have bowel cancer or if they are not certain.

Content supplied by the NHS and adapted for Ireland by the HSE

Page last reviewed: 21 November 2023
Next review due: 21 November 2026

This project has received funding from the Government of Ireland’s Sláintecare Integration Fund 2019 under Grant Agreement Number 123.