Bowel cancer: what you need to know

Bowel cancer: what you need to knowAs bowel cancer awareness month draws to an end, it’s still not too late to take action against this disease, the second biggest cancer killer in Australia, after lung cancer.

Bowel cancer (also known as colon or colorectal cancer) is estimated to kill just over 4,000 Australians this year, with around 17,520 new cases being diagnosed this year alone. [i]


What is bowel cancer?

Bowel cancer is a malignant growth that develops most commonly in the lining of the colon (large bowel) or rectum. Most bowel cancers develop from tiny growths called polyps inside the colon or rectum. These polyps look like small spots on the bowel lining and are quite common. While not all polyps become cancerous, the risk of bowel cancer is reduced if polyps are removed.

Bowel cancer can develop with few, or any, warning symptoms. However, many early symptoms can include:

  • Changes in bowel habits including diarrhea, constipation or feeling you haven’t completely emptied your bowel
  • Thin bowel movements
  • Blood or mucus in the faeces
  • Abdominal bloating or cramping
  • Tiredness, weakness
  • Unexplained anaemia.

Unfortunately, many of these symptoms may not be present, particularly in the early stages of cancer. They may also be mistaken for symptoms of other illnesses or conditions, or may not even be noticed at all.

That’s why regular bowel screening is so important.


The importance of bowel screening

Bowel cancer is easy to detect and, if treated early, 93 per cent of all cases can be treated successfully.[ii]

Like any screening tool, bowel screening cannot prevent cancer. However, proper screening can save lives. It can detect cancer in its early stages when it is highly curable, as well as detecting growths, or polyps that could become pre-cancer.

Current guidelines recommend all Australians aged 50 to 74 undergo regular screening using a non-invasive test that looks for blood in the faeces. This faecal occult blood test (FOBT) can be done in the privacy of your own home.

The National Bowel Cancer Screening Program currently provides the test free for people aged 50, 55, 60, 64, 65, 70, 72 and 74. More aged groups will be added in coming years and by 2020, the test will be available free (once every two years) to all Australians aged 50 to 74.

If there is a family history of bowel cancer, you should begin screening at 40 years of age. Speak to your doctor about the right screening tools for you.


What about colonoscopies?

A colonoscopy is the best test to diagnose bowel cancer as it allows the doctor to view the rectum and the entire colon. Air is pumped into the colon through a flexible tube that is inserted into the anus. A camera on the end of the tube allows your doctor to look for abnormal tissue that is removed for further examination. You are sedated during this procedure.

The doctor can perform a biopsy and remove polyps or other abnormal tissue during the test, if necessary. Colonoscopies may be given as a follow-up to abnormal FOBT results, or if there is a history of bowel cancer in the family.


Can you prevent bowel cancer?

It’s not possible to prevent all cases of bowel cancer, and there is no known cause of bowel cancer. However, there are some risk factors that increase your risk, which include:

  • Inherited genetic risk and family history
  • Inflammatory bowel disease
  • High consumption of red meat, particularly processed meats
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Consuming large amounts of alcohol
  • Smoking

The best way to reduce your risk is to not smoke, eat a healthy diet rich in fresh fruit and vegetables and maintain a healthy weight.

Most of us don’t like discussing our bowels and their functions, but healthy bowels are important for our overall health. If you are concerned about your risk for bowel cancer, or want to know more about screening, make an appointment to speak to your doctor.

Further information

Bowel Cancer Australia

Cancer Council Australia


[i] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Bowel cancer (colorectal cancer),

[ii] Cancer Council Australia, Bowel Cancer,


Stay well this winter with winning meals

Stay well with winter mealsAfter a bumper cold and flu season last year, dietitians are urging Australians to boost their immune system this winter by tapping into nutritious comfort foods.

According to the Dietitians Association of Australia (DAA), focusing on whole foods, including those containing vitamin C, zinc and protein, can help immunity – a useful weapon in fighting off the germs that cause colds and flu.

Figures from the Department of Health show more than 14,000 cases of the flu were reported in Australia last year, a 36 per cent increase from the year before.[i] And the flu accounts for 13,500 hospitalisations and 3,000 deaths among Australians aged over 50 years.[ii]

While healthy eating may not ward off germs entirely, DAA spokesperson Simone Austin said making nutritious meals a priority in the colder months can reduce the likelihood and severity of colds.

She added that a nutritious diet is particularly important in vulnerable populations, such as the elderly, whose immune systems may already be compromised.

“Foods high in vitamin C include capsicum, broccoli, kiwi fruit, strawberries and citrus fruit. Zinc is found in fish, seafood, beef and lamb, which also provide good-quality protein. Baked beans and pumpkin seeds also provide zinc. So there’s plenty of nutritious and tasty options.

Spicy goulash soup with paprika.“Now that winter has finally arrived, it’s time to enjoy tasty, warming foods that give you, and your immune system, a boost,” said Ms Austin, an Accredited Practising Dietitian.

According to Ms Austin, a nutritious winter diet need not be expensive or complicated.

She recommends nourishing winter meals, such as:

  • Beef and bean stew
  • Porridge topped with pumpkin seeds and chopped nuts
  • Warming seafood soup with added dark leafy greens and slices of capsicum
  • Grainy toast or a wholemeal muffin topped with baked beans
  • Delicious fruit crumbles, using fresh or frozen berries.

For tailored nutrition advice on keeping healthy this winter, DAA recommends seeking the support of an Accredited Practising Dietitian.

[i] Australian Government, Department of Health. National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System. Viewed 2 June 2016

[ii] Australian Government, Department of Health. Influenza. Viewed 2 June 2016.

Further information: 
Dietitians Association of Australia

Based on a press release issued from the DAA 8 June 2016