I think most of us know that any blood when you go to the loo is a problem. I’m not sure that most people know that pale floating poo can be a sign of cancer too.
This time last year, I was blissfully ignorant that I had a deadly cancer growing in my pancreas. Pancreatic Cancer is often called a silent cancer. People simply don’t know it’s there until it’s too late. Half of all cases in the UK are diagnosed at A&E after a sudden onset usually of jaundice, which is exactly what I had. Of those, 1 in 4 die within a month, and half are dead within 12 weeks.
Nothing to see here…
Unlike skin, breast, or testicular cancer — there’s nothing to see and nothing to feel. By the time obvious symptoms show up, the tumour is far progressed. Mine was 3.2cm, which is pretty typical. I would have noticed that on my boobs!
It’s location is also seriously problematic. Most tumours are in the head of the pancreas, near the mesentery artery and portal vein… both of which are critical to life. When a tumour wraps these, it becomes almost impossible to remove it. Mine had started on the portal vein, I was days away from there being no possible cure.
This is why small clues matter so much. Those deaths could be avoided if the cancer is caught early enough for surgery.
A clue in the loo…
So, what can anyone do? If there are no symptoms, and it’s often too late when there are, what can any of us do? What’s the equivalent of checking your moles, or giving your boobs or testes a good feel?
Well, it’s to look in the loo! Pancreatic Cancer, and other digestive cancers, are often quiet rather than completely silent.
Blood or black poo is an immediate alarm signal, and the Bowel Cancer awareness campaigns have done a pretty good job on this one. But, how about a poo that doesn’t flush away? A poo that’s more peanut butter coloured than chocolate? Would that get you making a Doctor’s appointment?
Pale poo that floats, is hard to flush away, or that leaves a film on the water is unhealthy poo. It either means you’re eating too much fat (which is why we often get this after a take away), or your digestive system isn’t processing fat properly. If you have this sort of poo for longer than a week or so, it’s time to get it checked.
It’s not always cancer…
Now, don’t panic. There are lots of reasons for floating poo. It could be too many take aways, it could be early signs of pancreatitis, it could be a benign cyst, or it could be cancer. If it persists, and particularly if combined with other symptoms — things like fatigue, loss of appetite, unexplained weight loss, bloating, or mid back pain, it’s time to get checked out.
Talk about poo properly…
Now, I went to my Doctor. In fact, I went to my Doctor about every six months for 5+ years, complaining of fatigue. They did take me seriously, to begin with. I had sleep studies to check for sleep apnea, multiple thyroid and iron tests, and I think we nearly go there when I was checked for coeliac, as they’d clocked my regular bloating. But, we got nowhere and I stopped trying with my GP. I turned to the wellness industry, spending money on hormone checks, personal training, wellness coaching, and giving up alcohol. Anything to try to get on top of my tiredness.
But, nobody talked to me properly about poo!
I think I was asked ‘if my bowel movements were ok’ and ‘if I’d seen any changes’. The thing is, I thought they were fine, and nothing much had changed… I’d had floating poo for some time — I’d put it down to the nerves of speaking on stage (which I do for a living). I know this had been happening for a while, because I was often a bit embarrassed at friends’ houses when I had to flush the loo a few times. I just didn’t know it could be something sinister.
The questions that Doctors asked me were too euphemistic, and my knowledge too scant, for the conversation to get anywhere meaningful.
If my Doctor had asked me to describe the colour, consistency and behaviour of my poo, we may have got there. So, please when you Doctor asks about your ‘stools’ or ‘bowel movements’ — cut the crap and talk plainly! It could save your life.
For more on symptoms, head to Pancreatic Cancer UK
This is my personal experience, shared to give a perspective on living with cancer.