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What is bowel cancer? Abby Cohen shares symptom that led to early diagnosis

The former wife of rugby player Ben Cohen first revealed she was being treated for cancer earlier this year.

Women clutching stomach to represent bowel cancer symptoms. (Getty Images)
There are five key potential bowel cancer symptoms to be aware of. (Getty Images)

Abby Cohen has revealed the first symptom of bowel cancer that she noticed which allowed doctors to catch the disease early.

Cohen, 45, who is the ex-wife of rugby player Ben Cohen, first revealed she was being treated for cancer earlier this year, and has now shared the type of cancer and her symptoms.

Read more: Ben Cohen’s ex-wife Abby reveals she has been diagnosed with cancer (The Independent, 3-min read)

Abby said she had previously visited her GP in January this year after finding a small amount of blood in her stool, which the doctor put down to haemorrhoids.

However, by April she began to feel tired, bloated and then one day she had the first warning symptom: intense pain in her bottom.

"It felt like pressure to the point where I thought I was going to prolapse. It brought me to tears and was so painful I was driving hunched up over the wheel,' Cohen told the Daily Mail. She drove to the nearest service station and went to the loo.

"There was this pressure of release, and it was just a huge amount of mucus and blood. It was really scary — like something had burst inside me," she added. Cohen was later told that this was part of her tumour bursting, and she contacted her GP the following day.

Cohen credits the late Dame Deborah James, who died in June 2022 of bowel cancer at age 40, with raising awareness of bowel cancer and the reason why Cohen acted to swiftly in seeing her GP.

"I'm one of the lucky ones, an example of someone who acted on a symptom fairly quickly. The cancer was caught early and at the stage where it was curable," she added.

George Alagiah was first diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2014. (Getty Images)
George Alagiah was first diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2014. (Getty Images)

It comes just one month after BBC newsreader George Alagiah died after a nearly decade-long battle with bowel cancer. He was 67 years old.

Alagiah, who was the long time presenter of BBC One’s News At Six was diagnosed with stage four bowel cancer in April 2014. It later spread to his liver and lymph nodes.

In October last year the presenter said his cancer had spread further and he would be taking a break from his role.

Read more: The bowel cancer symptom George Alagiah wished he’d caught earlier (The Independent, 3-min read)

Dame Deborah James has been praised by experts for helping to save lives. (Getty Images)
Dame Deborah James has been praised by experts for helping to save lives. (Getty Images)

Dame Deborah James' bowel cancer battle

You, Me, and The Big C podcast host Deborah James was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2016, at the age of 35, and campaigned tirelessly to raise awareness of the signs and symptoms of the disease.

Last May, she shared that she was moving to hospice-at-home care to treat her terminal condition before passing away on 28 June 2022.

But her legacy lives on via her fundraiser, the Bowelbabe fund, which has now raised more than £11.3m to cover projects across Cancer Research UK, The Royal Marsden Cancer Charity, Bowel Cancer UK and The Institute of Cancer Research.

It certainly seems to be having an impact. Between the months of May and July last year, referrals for suspected lower gastro-intestinal (GI) cancers reached record levels, with over 170,500 people referred for checks during that period – up over 30,000 compared to the same period last year.

Suspected lower GI urgent referrals across 22/23 were 113% of the levels seen in 21/22, and 127% of the levels from pre-pandemic.

Read more: Bowel cancer survivor credits Deborah James with helping her cope with diagnosis (Yahoo Life UK, 5-min read)

Despite the strides made, there is still work to be done particularly as some 38% of people still can't name any symptoms of bowel cancer, a Bowel Cancer UK survey shows.

Doctor physician with computer tablet consulting with male patients stomach ache in hospital exam room. Men's health technology concept
Nearly 42,900 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer in the UK each year, according to Cancer Research UK. (Getty Images)

What is bowel cancer?

Bowel cancer is one of the most common types of cancers diagnosed in the UK, with most people diagnosed over the age of 60, according to the NHS (though younger people can get it too).

It is a general term for cancer that begins in the large bowel – depending on where it starts, bowel cancer is sometimes called colon or rectal cancer. The colon is the first part of the large bowel, is about five feet long and has four sections, of which cancer can develop in any section, while rectal cancer starts in the last part of the large bowel, the part that stores poo until it is ready to be passed out of the body.

Almost six in 10 people diagnosed will now survive their disease for 10 years or more, but with it still claiming around 46 lives every day, more research needs to be done, Cancer Research UK highlights.

Other than age, the risk factors for developing bowel cancer include genetics and family history, medical conditions called familial adenomatous polyposis, Lynch syndrome, ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, and diet and lifestyle factors.

Bowel cancer symptoms

The key signs to be aware of, according to Bowel Cancer UK, include:

  • Bleeding from your bottom and/or blood in your poo

  • A persistent and unexplained change in bowel habit

  • Unexplained weight loss

  • Extreme tiredness for no obvious reason

  • A pain or lump in your tummy

The NHS points out that some bowel cancer symptoms are very common and may be caused by other conditions, so there's no need to panic.

But while having these symptoms doesn't mean you definitely have bowel cancer, it's important to get checked by your GP, because if you do, finding it earlier means it's easier to treat.

When to seek medical advice for bowel cancer symptoms

You should see your GP if you have had any of the possible symptoms of bowel cancer for three weeks or more, the NHS website says.

When you see a doctor, they might examine your stomach and bottom to make sure you have no lumps, arrange for a simple blood test to check for iron deficiency and anaemia, or arrange for you to have a test in hospital to make sure there's no serious cause of your symptoms.

Bowel cancer screening can also help to detect cases sooner, with everyone aged 60-74 who is registered with a GP and lives in England being sent a home test kit every two years.

To find out how to request one if you're a different age, see here.

Treatment for bowel cancer

For those who do have bowel cancer, it can be treated using a combination of different approaches, such as surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and targeted therapies, depending on where the cancer is in your bowel and how far it has spread. Your GP can explain the options in detail to you.

To find out more visit Bowel Cancer UK, or call The Macmillan Support Line on 0808 808 0000 seven days a week 8am-8pm, or call Cancer Research UK's cancer nurses on 0808 800 4040 Monday to Friday 9am-5pm.