What’s your gut feeling?
The symptoms of bowel cancer can be vague and all too easy to ignore, so it’s important to be aware of any changes in how your gut is feeling or behaving. Be bowel cancer aware by changing your diet to include more fibre and less processed meat and by getting to know the symptoms. That way you will hopefully avoid bowel cancer altogether, or at least give yourself the best possible chance of an early diagnosis and successful treatment.
What is bowel cancer?
Bowel cancer is a general term for cancer that begins in the large bowel and is sometimes called colon or rectal cancer, depending on where the cancer starts. It is one of the most common types of cancer diagnosed in the UK, with around 40,000 new cases diagnosed every year. About 1 in every 20 people in the UK will develop bowel cancer in their lifetime; around 90% of bowel cancers occur in people who are in their sixties, which is why our national bowel cancer screening programme focuses on people aged 60-74.
Bowel cancer is sometimes linked to a diet that is high in red meat (in particular processed meats such as ham, sausages etc) and low in naturally occurring roughage. So to maintain a healthy gut and increase your chances of avoiding bowel cancer you should restrict your intake of red meat and eat plenty of whole cereals (brown bread, brown rice etc), fresh fruit and vegetables.
Sometimes bowel cancer is caused by the genes you inherit, so if someone in your immediate family has had bowel cancer –particularly if it occurred at a young age – then you should be screened regularly. To find out more about taking part in the GUTS screening programme click here . Bowel cancer is most likely to occur when people are in their sixties, so some time after your 60th birthday you will be invited to take part in the national screening programme. It is estimated that if just 60% of those invited took part, then over a 10-year period the bowel cancer death rate would be cut by around 20%. Screening will detect polyps that can potentially develop into cancer, which can be easily removed with a non-surgical procedure, as well as actual cancers.
Bowel cancer symptoms
The three main symptoms of bowel cancer are blood in the stools, changes in bowel habit (either frequent, looser stools or constipation) – and abdominal pain. All these symptoms are very common and most people with them do not have bowel cancer. For example, blood in the stools is more often caused by haemorrhoids and a change in bowel habit or abdominal pain is most often the result of something you have eaten.
If you have any of these symptoms and they persist for longer than six weeks despite over-the-counter medications, you should speak to your GP. As almost 9 out of 10 people with bowel cancer are over the age of 60, these symptoms are more important as people get older. They are also more significant when they persist despite simple treatments.
Most people who are eventually diagnosed with bowel cancer have one of the following combination of symptoms:
- a persistent change in bowel habit without blood in their stools, but with abdominal pain
- blood in the stools without other haemorrhoid symptoms
- abdominal pain, discomfort or bloating always provoked by eating, sometimes resulting in a reduced appetite and weight loss.
The symptoms of bowel cancer can be subtle and don’t necessarily make you feel ill.
Who’s at risk?
It’s not known exactly what causes bowel cancer, but there are a number of things that can increase your risk. These include:
- age – almost 90% of bowel cancer occur in people aged 60 or over
- diet – a diet high in red and processed meat and low in fibre can increase risk
- weight – bowel cancer is more common in those who are overweight or obese
- exercise – being inactive also increases your risk of developing bowel cancer
- alcohol and smoking – both may increase the risk of bowel cancer
- family history – having and immediate relative (parent or sibling) who developed bowel cancer under the age of 50 puts you at a greater lifetime risk.
Some people have an increased risk of bowel cancer because they have another condition that affects their bowel, such as severe ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease, over a long period of time.
Read more about the causes of bowel cancer and preventing bowel cancer.
Bowel cancer can be treated using a combination of different treatments, depending on where the cancer is in your bowel and how far it has spread.
The main treatments are:
- surgery – the cancerous section of bowel is removed; it is the most effective way of curing bowel cancer, and is all that many people need
- chemotherapy – where medication is used to kill cancer cells
- radiotherapy – where radiation is used to kill cancer cells
- biological treatments – a newer type of medication that increases the effectiveness of chemotherapy and prevents the cancer spreading
As with most types of cancer, the chances of a complete cure depends on how far it has advanced by the time it is diagnosed. If the cancer is confined to the bowel, surgery will usually be able to completely remove it. Overall, 7 to 8 in every 10 people with bowel cancer will live at least one year after diagnosis. More than half of those diagnosed will live at least another 10 years. Every year, around 16,000 people die as a result of bowel cancer.