Anaemia - a lack of red cells in the blood - can be an important sign for bowel cancer.. It is found in 1 in 4 patients with bowel cancer but the problem is - most people do not know they have it. It is usually discovered with a simple blood test done at your GP surgery or hospital.
If you have a blood test and are told you are anaemic - or a bit anaemic and you have bowel symptoms - ask if you should be investigated to exclude bowel cancer.
Mild anaemia is quite common in women, particularly before the menopause but it is rare in men of any age. It can be due to taking aspirin-like tablets or an inadequate diet. If your anaemia is mild, your doctor may first try a short course of iron tablets to see if investigations can be avoided. However, virtually all men found to have an iron deficient anaemia (IDA) should be investigated if there is no known reason for the anaemia and women particularly after the menopause. But most people with anaemia will not turn out to have cancer.
Anaemia rarely has symptoms or signs like breathlessness or very pale skin. Most people with these usually have other mild conditions. Very advanced anaemia can have such sign but this is very uncommon.
What causes anaemia? The lining of the bowel can bleed in small amounts, without you noticing, over a long period of time. This slowly results in a loss of iron, which is essential to the formation of new red cells.
Even if you have a diet which contains plenty of iron (from red meat and liver, for example) the loss of blood from the bowel can still lead to iron deficiency anaemia (IDA).
If you have bowel symptoms which you think might be serious, a blood test to check for anaemia can be very helpful. If your GP is not sending you to hospital, you could ask if you could have a blood test as they are very cheap and effective.
The test to check for anaemia is called a 'haemaglobin test' and this measures the redness in the blood. This simple test can also give a good indication on whether the anaemia is due to a deficiency in iron.
Remember, in men of all ages iron deficiency anaemia should always be investigated unless there is a very obvious cause for it. Although in women having periods it is much less likely to be serious, it still needs to be carefully monitored. If you have anaemia and there is any doubt about what could be causing it, this needs to investigated to exclude bowel cancer.