Looking into the toilet bowl after you’ve been is not the most pleasant of experiences, but knowledge of your poo habits might just save your life.

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Bowel cancer is currently the UK's second deadliest cancer, with someone dying of the disease every half an hour. But if it’s caught early it is treatable.

“We know that nine out of 10 cases of bowel cancer can be treated successfully if diagnosed early”, says Mark Flannagan, chief executive of UK charity Beating Bowel Cancer.

Paramount to this early diagnosis is that people are aware of what’s going on with their poo, and that any persistent changes in the normal routine and any signs of blood are checked out immediately.

Hollyoaks actor Ben Richards revealed last year how he dismissed his bowel cancer symptoms as a reaction to spicy food he ate while on holiday in India.

He told The Daily Mirror: "Being a typical bloke, I self-diagnosed. I was convinced it was due to the spicy food I’d been eating in India.

"Besides, I was pretty healthy. I was in good shape and looked after myself…"

The actor, who played Ben Bradley in the Channel 4 soap and is a patron of Bowel Cancer UK, was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2012 after his partner finally convinced him to see his doctor.

Doctors then discovered a 6cm long tumour in his bowel and underwent radiotherapy as well as taking chemotherapy tablets. He has now been clear of cancer for four years.

Here’s exactly what you need to know about poo and bowel cancer:

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1. Stools with blood

Very often, blood in stools is from piles (haemorrhoids), especially if it is bright red, fresh blood – this is because piles are basically swollen veins in the back passage which can easily get damaged when you poo, causing a small amount of bleeding.

But if the blood seems darker, it could be a sign of cancer higher up in the bowel, which has time to go darker as it moves through the bowel. Your stool will be very dark, almost like tar. It could also be bleeding from an ulcer, but either way, you need to see the doctor and get it checked.

2. Looser stools

Everyone can have the odd bout of diarrhoea, from dodgy food, stress or (for women) that time of the month. But if you notice a change to your normal bowel habits that last longer than four to six weeks (though some experts say three), it needs to be checked. This is particularly the case if your stools are looser.

[Read more: What your tummy is trying to tell you]

3. More frequent stools

Similar to above, if you notice you’re needing to go a lot more often (and haven’t really changed your diet), it could be an early sign that something’s up.

4. Straining to poo

Constipation, like diarrhoea, is something everyone might have occasionally, but like diarrhoea, if it’s ongoing, you need to aware. Sometimes the cancer tumour can block the bowel, leading to symptoms of intense pains in the abdomen, bloating, being sick, and being constipated.

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5. Straining to poo but not actually ‘going’

Sometimes, feeling like you need to go, even though you don’t, can be an early symptom of bowel cancer.

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