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Bowel cancer: What are the signs and treatments and what support is available following diagnosis

It's estimated that one in two people will develop some form of cancer during their lifetime. Bowel cancer is ranked as one of the most common forms of cancer in the UK.

The symptoms

Out of those who suffer from bowel cancer, the NHS says more than 90% have at least one of the following symptoms

  • A persistent change in bowel habit;
  • Blood in the stool without other symptoms of haemorrhoids;
  • Abdominal pain, discomfort or bloating always brought on by eating.

Current treatments

The treatment for bowel cancer will depend on the part of the bowel that's affected. Most commonly bowel cancer is treated with surgery which may be combined with chemotherapy, radiotherapy or biological treatments.

Early diagnosis is highly important as if it's detected early enough, then treatment can cure the bowel cancer and stop it coming back. The more advanced the bowel cancer is, the less likely a cure is possible, especially if the cancer has spread.

A recent article by The Independent highlighted the case of a 41-year-old man, Geoffrey Seymour. Mr Seymour spotted blood in his stool just before his 41st birthday and swiftly contacted his GP. 

Unfortunately, Mr Seymour was diagnosed with stage four colorectal cancer which had spread from his colon to his liver. He underwent five cycles of chemotherapy, which was initially promising, followed by surgery to remove one third of his liver. 

Following the surgery he began preparing for radiotherapy. However, a month after the surgery scans revealed more tumours in his liver, so Mr Seymour underwent further chemotherapy and was booked in for further surgery. A later set of scans showed disease progression, so his surgery was cancelled and he underwent two further rounds of chemotherapy. More scans were conducted as well as blood tests which showed continued disease progression; suggesting that chemotherapy was no longer effective. 

Throughout all of this Mr Seymour continued to suffer from the side effects of chemotherapy which included his face being covered in painful blisters. This occurred as chemotherapy kills all fast-growing cells such as cancer cells but also attacks hair and nail cells. 

Developments in treatment

Cancer treatments are being developed all over the world. In Mr Seymour’s case he's currently undergoing dendritic cell therapy. This involves using the patient's own blood cells to create a type of vaccine that helps the immune systems recognise and attack the cancer cells. 

However, dendritic cell therapy is still being researched and lacks an evidence base for it to be available in the UK. Therefore, Mr Seymour has had to travel Germany for the therapy and is paying privately, with one injection costing around £17,000.

Closer to home, The Institute of Cancer Research London is conducting research to provide a deeper understanding of a key protein involved in bowel cancer; tankyrase. Scientists have developed drugs that block tankyrase but due to the complexity of the process there are too many side effects for these drugs to reach clinical trials. It's hoped that with the current research into understanding tankyrase and its inner workings that more targeted treatments can be developed with less severe side effects. 

Help and support available

In Mr Seymour’s case, it appears that he acted fast and his treatment was carried out promptly. It's unfortunate that by the time of the first symptom the cancer had already reached stage 4. 

However, this isn't always the case. We've seen many instances where a patient reports symptoms of bowel cancer but for differing reasons their diagnosis and/or treatment is delayed which has allowed the cancer to develop and spread to the point where more radical treatment is needed, or in deeply saddening cases, the patient has become terminally ill due to the delay.

As a firm we've pushed for private treatment and access to clinical trials for our clients where there's evidence to support their effectiveness. We continue to seek expert opinions on the range of treatments and therapies available to our clients.

Find out more about Irwin Mitchell's expertise in supporting people affected by a delay in diagnosis or treatment of cancer at our dedicated cancer misdiagnosis claims section.