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Dr Phil: Bowel cancer (video)

Hello there, I’m Dr Phil, and today we’re going to be talking about bowel cancer ... Now, we Brits are very good at talking about our bowels in a humorous fashion, but perhaps not talking about bowel cancer. 35,000 people a year are diagnosed with bowel cancer, it’s the second most common cancer in women and the third most common cancer in blokes. So clearly important.

Your food comes in through your gullet or oesophagus, in through your stomach, out through your duodenum and small intestine, eventually ending up in the colon, which is almost like a U-shape: you have an ascending colon, a transverse colon and a descending colon. It comes out through your descending colon and out through your rectum and anus. Now, bowel cancer usually starts as a little polyp poking in on the side of the tube, and, as you can imagine with a little fleshy polyp, it can bleed.

Depending on how low down it is depends on the colour of the blood that comes out. If it’s very low down it will be fresh red blood that you might notice mixed in with your poo. Often that’s due to haemorrhoids (piles) if it’s just blood on its own, but DON'T ASSUME THAT ANY RECTAL BLEEDING IS DUE TO PILES – ALWAYS GET IT CHECKED OUT. The older you are the more likely you are to have cancer, so particularly if you’re elderly you must get that checked out. 

If the bleeding happens a little bit higher up, often the blood gets worked on by the digestive juices as it passes through and it comes out a bit darker. If the bleeding is from very high up around about the stomach, it comes out as something called melena, which is black and tarry and the most disgusting smell you’ve ever smelt in your life. That is both a social and a medical emergency.

A lot of people may get a bit of bleeding. Also with a polyp, it can narrow the hole in your tube so you might find that your bowel habit is altered: you might find that you get constipated when you weren’t usually constipated or you get fluctuating bouts of constipation and diarrhoea. Any significant change in your bowel habit also needs checking out. You may find you pass a little bit of mucus, which isn’t normal, and you may find lower down that you want to pass something but nothing comes out. That may be because you’re trying to pass the polyp and it won’t come out, so all these symptoms need to be taken seriously.

Some people have a polyp that just bleeds very slowly, so they  get a bit anaemic and  tired. You may get pain in your abdomen or you may notice a little lump or just feel generally knackered. Particularly if you have a family history of bowel cancer it’s worth getting checked out. If you’re 60 to 69, the UK's NHS has a bowel cancer screening program, which involves taking faecal occult bloods, a fancy name for taking a bit of poo, smearing it on a card and seeing if there’s any blood in it. If there is, the next step will be to have a look up your bowel, often with a sigmoidoscope which goes a little bit up into the sigmoid colon (the floppy bit at the bottom) or they may put a colonoscope up there which goes all the way up. If you want to know more about colonoscopes, put ‘Billy Connelly colonoscope’ into YouTube – there’s a very informative discussion on it. If you want to know more about embarrassing problems in a humorous way I would recommend Sex, Sleep or Scrabble, or visit

Dr Phil Hammond is a medical doctor, comedian and commentator on health issues.

Written by: Dr Phil Hammond
Edited by: Dr Phil Hammond
Last updated: Friday, October 20th 2017

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Comments on this article

Posted by Optional on 25/03/2016 at 01:45

I'm 60 years old just getting over bowel cancer finished chemo. The other night thought I was going to die I had stomach pain really bad it was very sore to move I was also very sick.3 days on my stomach is still sore and I am now sure I'm getting vaginal bleeding also this morning had blood in feces. Please can you help me .

Posted by Christo G on 15/02/2016 at 07:25

It started 3 months ago when my specialist removed some hemaroids. All ok after opp. Seven days ago i develop some stummic pain and cramps. On the toilet normal stool but buring heavely. The toilet were red with blood. This happened every time even today. Sometimes i only pass this blood coupled wit burning feeling. Is this cancer

Posted by Dima on 30/11/2015 at 09:20

It's been six month that I have a problem that my poo comes out with blood and he last time the Dr told me it might be stress related but now I'm worried because currently its been two weeks since I started and it does not stop pls advise

Posted by Optional on 08/05/2014 at 07:49

Hi, been having bleeding when I poop and have lower left abdominal pain most of the time! The blood is fresh red but with mucus mixed with it. I've previously had a colonoscopy before and it didn't show anything...I have do have a cluster of ulcers in my oasophigus tho. The bleeding has been there for about two months now, the doc has checked and ruled out piles and a fissure. Also just to note that the bleeding got bad at one point that it was continually dripping out :( that lasted for about 3 days.

Posted by nutty nanna on 13/04/2013 at 12:00

hi,i was sat down and with out pain or any warning suddenly felt wet,thought i had urinatumps said it was proed.when i checked it was blood from my back passage,if i had to measure it i would say about a cup full.went to see my gp he examined my rectum,said he had pushed a pile back up he coulnt feel any lumps or bumps said it was from my piles,i am not convinced.would be greatful for any feed back.bye the way the blood was just normal red blood.thank you

Posted by Optional on 12/09/2012 at 03:01

I am Afraid because I have this problem and I am not comfortable with it. I try to get bowel out but nothing happens instead I have White mucus and blood coming out.. I get exhausted and when I give up I feel it go back in. I have the feeling that something needs to come out but its tough getting it Out. I am afraid of it and I am afraid to get checked for the results are what might scare me.

Posted by scaredy cat on 16/03/2011 at 01:10

IFor the last couple of months I have experienced extreme and severe pain after a poo -it's so severe it makes me feel quite sick..and can last about 10 mins or happens once or twice every week or so? I am not straining...though have had piles in the past ? Have heard that Ovarian cancer may have similar symptoms ? Help /advice please

Posted by Optional on 03/03/2011 at 10:53

Hi, my sister has just had colonoscope done as she was suffering from anal bleeding for the last 4 months. She was suffering pain and lots of discomfort, can't sleep and some times doesn't have an appetite. Now the surgeon discovered growth lower down in her rectum during the colonoscope and they have done a biopsey to test for rectum cancer. Please warn your readers to be insistent with their GP that if after a couple of weeks of suffering and no medication help, insist on seeing a specialist and check for colitis and rectum cancer. My sister is 35.5 years old. This is not an old age illness. Because of her age the doctors she went to see for the last 4 months overlooked this diagnosis as they actually didn't think there was any possibility of her getting rectum cancer at her age.

Posted by Optional on 11/02/2011 at 06:43

Blood comes out when doing poop n after.

Posted by Optional on 16/04/2010 at 08:44

Just wanna watch your video.

Posted by Optional on 30/03/2010 at 10:35

i only get the pain when im cinstipated otherwise its itcy sometimes but not painful everytime