As 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
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.
[ii] Cancer Council Australia, Bowel Cancer, http://www.cancer.org.au/about-cancer/types-of-cancer/bowel-cancer/