Bowel cancer is the third most diagnosed and the second most lethal cancer in Australia.
The good news is that if caught early, the majority of bowel cancers can be successfully treated. However, many of us can feel reluctant to talk to a doctor about symptoms related to the bowel.
It’s essential to take your bowel health seriously. In this article I, Dr Rob Paterson, will touch on symptoms to watch out for, factors that put you at risk, and how to help prevent bowel cancer.
What is bowel cancer?
Bowel cancer is a term for any cancer that begins in the large bowel. It can also be called ‘colon cancer’, ‘rectal cancer’, or ‘colorectal cancer’, depending on where the cancer starts.
The majority of bowel cancers develop from tiny growths called ‘polyps’. Not all polyps become cancerous, but they are usually removed during a colonoscopy to reduce the risk.
These polyps look like small spots or cherries on the bowel lining, and can eventually block the bowel, causing bleeding and discomfort. In advanced cases, the cancer can spread to other organs beyond the bowel.
Common symptoms of bowel cancer
Bowel cancer doesn’t usually begin to show symptoms until the later stages. Symptoms may also be dismissed or linked to other unrelated conditions.
The following are possible signs of bowel cancer:
- A change in your regular bowel habits
- Rectal bleeding or blood in the stool
- Persistent and severe abdominal cramping
- Nausea and vomiting
- Unexplained anaemia and/or weight loss
- A lump or mass in your abdomen
It’s important to remember that any of the above signs are not necessarily a sign of bowel cancer – and can be symptoms of many other conditions. See your GP for a professional assessment.
Bowel cancer risk factors
Australia has one of the highest rates of bowel cancer in the world, with 1 in 13 Australians at risk of developing the disease. Your risk increases with age, if you have a family history of bowel cancer or polyps, or if you have had an inflammatory bowel disease.
Additionally, lifestyle factors such as obesity, a low fruit and vegetable diet, excessive alcohol consumption, and smoking also play a significant part in increasing your risk.
Treatment for bowel cancer
Surgery is the most common treatment for bowel cancer. However, treatment may vary depending on a variety of different factors, including:
- The size, position, and number of the tumour/s
- The location of the cancer in the bowel
- The type and genetic makeup of cancer cells
- Your general health and level of fitness
- What will give you the best outcome
Additional treatments may include radiofrequency ablation, cryosurgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and targeted therapies. Your Oncologist will determine a course of treatment for you in accordance with the factors listed above.
Bowel cancer screening
As bowel cancer can develop without noticeable symptoms, screening is important for detecting the disease early.
The National Bowel Cancer Screening Program recommends getting checked every 1 to 2 years after the age of 50, and provides free screening for people between 50 and 74 years of age. BowelScreen Australia uses a faecal immunochemical test (FIT) which is an at-home, quick and convenient process.
If you have a family history of bowel cancer, or are noticing possible symptoms, see your GP for advice.
Preventing bowel cancer
Making certain lifestyle changes can reduce your risk of bowel cancer. Some things you can do to lower your risk include:
- Eat a high fibre diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables.
- Drink water regularly, aiming for 2L per day.
- Stay active with 30-60 minutes of moderate exercise daily.
- Limit alcohol consumption to 2 standard drinks per day (or less).
- Don’t smoke, and stay away from second hand smoke.
- Avoid processed meat and limit your red meat intake to 700g per week.
- If you’re over 50, undergo regular screening.
Where to get further advice
If you notice any symptoms, or are in a high risk group for bowel cancer, speak to your GP for a referral to see myself, Dr Rob Paterson, or one of our qualified Oncologists at Hunter Valley Oncology.