If you have been experiencing any of the symptoms of bowel cancer for 2 weeks or more, your GP will want to see you.
Some people struggle with working up the courage or finding the time to make this important appointment, and this delay only increases the worry and fear.
Your GP will listen carefully to your concerns. They will encourage you to talk about the symptoms you have been having, including those problems affecting your bottom and your bowel habits. Whatever you have to say, they will encourage and support you to share your concerns with them, so that they can help you.
The more information you can give to your GP about your bowel habits and what has changed recently, the easier it will be for them to make an accurate diagnosis – so don't be shy, and don't put it off.
Unfortunately, Australians are very reluctant to talk about bottoms and bowels, although we are too happy to laugh at a bit of 'toilet humour'.
The stigma that is attached to discussing our bodily functions is still a huge issue, and needs to be overcome in order for us to start really saving lives from bowel cancer by picking the disease up in time.
It wasn't so long ago that the words 'breast cancer' were taboo, but today, people are much more aware of the symptoms and treatments available for breast cancer, which is fantastic. We need to see the same happening for bowel cancer – we will get there in time, and here at Bowel Cancer Australia we firmly believe that we will put bottoms on the map and, in due course, see people talking more openly about the disease.
But in the meantime, we can only stress that your GP has heard it all before – and probably worse besides.
Before you go to your GP
Before you go to your GP, it might be useful to keep a diary recording the symptoms you have been experiencing, and for how long.
It may also be worth printing this webpage, considering your answers to the questions below and take it with you to your appointment.
Alternatively Bowel Cancer Austraila's Bowel Cancer App
can be downloaded to your mobile device which contains a list of questions to ask your GP.
At your GP's surgery
If you go to your GP with a bowel related problem, here is a list of routine questions which your GP should ask as part of your consultation:
- How recently did you start to notice the symptoms?
- Have you noticed any bleeding from your bottom? If you have, what did it look like - bright red, dark red - and how much blood was there?
- Have you noticed looser, more diarrhoea-like bowel movements, and going to the toilet more? Or, are you trying to go and feel that you are constipated, or unable to completely empty your bowel?
- Is there any family history of bowel cancer, or any other cancer?
- Have you experienced any unusual abdominal (tummy) pain or lumps?
- Have you unexpectedly lost weight or become more tired recently?
Your GP should also ask you additional questions on:
- your lifestyle and diet (to identify any other possible risk factors)
- your own past medical history
- any medicines you might be taking (including pain killers, anti-inflammatory medicines, indigestion remedies, antibiotics and laxatives)
Your GP will need to know how your symptoms are affecting your quality of life. This is a particular problem if the work you do makes it very difficult to cope, or if you are having to take time off because of embarrassing problems with changing bowel habit, or if your ability to work is being affected by pain; feeling tired or dizzy or getting short of breath; not being able to eat properly or needing to go to the toilet more frequently.
Examinations and investigations
In addition to asking questions about your symptoms, your GP will feel your abdomen for any lumps or tenderness, and may also perform a rectal examination (a gentle examination with a gloved finger to look for and feel for any suspicious lumps in the bottom or rectum).
If your GP does not examine you, you should ask why they have chosen not to.
Your GP may also choose to ask you to have a blood test to see if you have anaemia or anything else that may help with a diagnosis.
If your GP cannot find any clear cause for your symptoms, you may be asked to watch and wait for a week or so, to see if they settle on their own, or with the treament your GP prescribes to make you more comfortable. The younger you are, the more likely it is that your GP will want to exclude other, simple reasons for your symptoms as they are usually - but not always - related to diet and lifestyle choices.
It is very important to be clear about when you should go back to your GP again if the problems you are having do not get better. You should then be referred for further investigations by a specialist.
However old you are, you should never be told by your GP that you are too young to have bowel cancer.
While bowel cancer is more common from age 50, bowel cancer is becoming increasingly common in younger people too.
Guidelines for clinical significant symptoms
At any age, if your symptoms include any unexplained signs - blood in the bowel movement, changed bowel habit, anaemia or a lump in your abdomen - you should be referred by your GP for further investigation via colonoscopy within 30 days.
Similarly, you should be referred by your GP for further investigation via colonoscopy within 30 days if you have received a positive bowel cancer screening test (known as a faecal immunochmical test (FIT)) result.
The referral doesn't mean you have cancer. Most people with symptoms do not have cancer but it should be ruled out by further investigations.