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Why are bowel cancer deaths rising among young women?

woman holding stomach due to ache, sitting in bed
Why are bowel cancer deaths among women rising?LaylaBird

When Danielle was struck down by symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, fainting, abdominal pain and extreme fatigue in 2012, she dismissed them as a sickness bug – never for a moment thinking that what she was experiencing could be bowel cancer.

At the time, everything was going well for the then-28-year-old: she was working as a lawyer, having moved from London to Amsterdam to live with her boyfriend. But when the pain in her abdomen persisted, along with an inconsistency in her bowel movements, Danielle began to worry. She booked an appointment with her GP – which turned out to be the start of receiving a life-changing diagnosis. It was later discovered that Danielle had a cancerous tumour in her bowel.

Now, as new reports predict that the number of young women who will die from bowel cancer is due to rise again in 2024, experts are encouraging more women – like Danielle – to seek medical advice when struck with similar symptoms, and related charities are working hard to raise awareness.

Here's the latest news on bowel cancer, along with the symptoms we should all be aware of:

Why are more women being diagnosed with bowel cancer?

According to data published in the journal Annals of Oncology, colorectal cancer mortality rates are expected to rise by 39% among women in the UK aged 25 to 49 this year; meanwhile, the rate for men of the same age will rise by 26%, when compared to the five years before the Covid-19 pandemic.

But why? The analysis highlighted three key risk factors as being linked to the rising rates: obesity, lack of exercise and dietary habits – which has prompted experts to emphasise the importance of adopting healthy habits and prioritising screening (which still remains vitally important even if, like Danielle, you already lead a healthy lifestyle).

How can you reduce your risk of bowel cancer?

As per Bowel Cancer UK, around 54% of all bowel cancers could be prevented by having a healthier lifestyle, and more than nine in ten people will survive bowel cancer if diagnosed at the earliest stage.

You can also talk to your GP about reducing your risk of bowel cancer and Cancer Research UK shares resources on its website, where it outlines a number of risk factors (remembering that having risk factors don't automatically mean you will definitely get bowel cancer). Said factors include eating too much red and processed meat, eating too little fibre, being overweight and obese, smoking tobacco, and drinking alcohol.

So, as well as being aware of bowel cancer symptoms (more on which below), you can also lower your risk by regularly partaking in exercise, quitting smoking, eating a healthy and fibrous diet (ideally packed with lots of whole foods and a variety of fruit and veg) and chatting to your doctor if you have concerns about weight management. Being aware of your alcohol intake is also important.

What are the main symptoms of bowel cancer?

It's important to note that all of the symptoms below could also be caused by reasons other than cancer – and if you're experiencing any, it does not mean that you have bowel cancer. However, it's always worthwhile seeking the advice of a medical professional.

As per the NHS, symptoms of bowel cancer may include:

  • Changes in your poo, such as having softer poo, diarrhoea or constipation that is not usual for you

  • Needing to poo more or less often than usual for you

  • Blood in your poo, which may look red or black

  • Bleeding from your bottom

  • Often feeling like you need to poo, even if you've just been to the toilet

  • Tummy pain

  • A lump in your tummy

  • Bloating

  • Losing weight without trying

  • Feeling very tired for no reason

The NHS says you should see a GP if you have any of these symptoms for three weeks or more. If your poo is black or dark red, or you have bloody diarrhoea, you could ask for an urgent GP appointment or call 111.

If you're bleeding non-stop from your bottom or notice a lot of blood (for instance, you see large blood clots or the water in your toilet turns red) call 999 or go to A&E.

Danielle's story

"[At first] the pain felt like it could be coming from my kidneys so I thought it might just be an infection," Danielle told Cosmopolitan UK when sharing the story of how she was diagnosed with bowel cancer. To begin with, the doctor agreed with Danielle's self-diagnosis and put her on a course of antibiotics to clear up the infection.

"After initially being told that my symptoms weren’t serious, I tried as best as I could to get on with my day-to-day life," she recalls. "However, the pain in my stomach continued to get worse – to the point where I collapsed."

Concerned that something more serious might be going on (she was also feeling constantly fatigued and vomited after everything she ate), Danielle took herself to hospital where she had a scan. "It revealed that my intestines were ‘packed’ and I was told that I would require further testing. The pain was excruciating, and it was at this point that I knew it was serious."

Danielle took the decision to move back to London to receive further treatment. There, she underwent a colonoscopy (an examination of the bowel using a small camera), and doctors sadly discovered that she had a cancerous tumour in her bowel.

It came as a shock to Danielle, who had no family history of bowel cancer and was otherwise completely fit and healthy. "I was so healthy that it hadn’t really crossed my mind. I ate well, was active and even though the stats at the time were something like 'every 1 in 3 would get it at some stage of their life', I just hadn’t thought it would be me – and definitely not at such a young age," she shares.

After having keyhole surgery to remove the tumour, Danielle knew things unfortunately still weren't right, so she was referred to HCA UK's London Digestive Centre where she underwent a further operation to remove more of her colon and lymph nodes.

After checking to make sure the cancer hadn't spread, Danielle was finally given the all-clear.

woman with hands on stomach suffering from pain
Olga Rolenko

"I felt relieved and exhausted," she reflects. "In a way I was frustrated that I had almost lost 3 years [to the disease], but it also made me realise life is too short to do things you don’t enjoy or value."

After recovering from bowel cancer, Danielle returned to work, and in 2015 she and her boyfriend, Charlie, got married. A year later, they had a baby daughter. "[Cancer] made me realise that my now-husband was a keeper and that I'm so lucky to have had such a supportive family who didn’t skirt around my illness, but respected that I was still me."

To find out more about bowel cancer visit the NHS website, Bowel Cancer UK or Cancer Research UK

This article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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