What you need to know about bowel cancer
Every April is bowel cancer awareness month and the perfect opportunity to learn more about this illness. For example, did you know that every 15 minutes, someone in the UK is diagnosed with bowel cancer? This equates to 41,000 people every year making it the fourth most common cancer in the UK.
So it's common, but what are the symptoms and are there factors you can take to avoid a bowel cancer diagnosis in the future? Or if you or a family member has been diagnosed, what's next?
What is Bowel Cancer?
Bowel cancer does what it says on the tin; it's cancer of the bowel. It's also called colorectal cancer, and usually affects the colon and rectum (the large bowel and back passage).
Bowel cancer kills someone every 15 seconds, making it the second biggest cancer killer after lung cancer. This equates to approximately 16,200 Britons dying of bowel cancer every year.
Despite the alarming figures, it's certainly not all doom and gloom. If caught early during the first diagnosis, 90% of cases are treatable, according to Mark Flannagan, CEO of the Beating Bowel Cancer charity. This means 90% of people treated for bowel cancer during the first stage of the illness will survive for at least five years post-treatment. This is what makes the bowel cancer survival rate during early diagnosis so highly; the chances of the cancer returning after these five initial years are extremely low.
It's important to catch it early because bowel cancer often begins as small polyps, which can be removed without the need for chemo or radiotherapy.
Not only can bowel cancer be successfully treated and cured at stage one, over the years, awareness concerning early diagnosis and more effective treatment available has meant bowel cancer associated deaths have continually declined since the 1970s according to bowelcanceruk.org.uk.
What Are The Symptoms of Bowel Cancer?
Bowel cancer is far more common in those older than 60 years. Whilst issues with the bowel, and abdominal area in general, can be embarrassing to mention, it's important to get yourself check out as early as possible, especially if you're at a higher risk. Doctors are trained to deal with any issues, big or small, embarrassing or usual. Symptoms, or signs, of bowel cancer can include the following:
- Bleeding from the bottom
- A change in your bowel habit lasting more than three weeks
- Abdominal pain, especially if severe and persistent
- A lump in your stomach/tummy (resulting in a pain in your tummy)
- Weight loss not related to other conditions or lifestyle choices
- Extreme tiredness or fatigue without any other logical reason
- Blood in your stools (poo)
It's important to note that these symptoms could be associated with other conditions, highlighting the importance to get yourself to a doctor to establish the correct treatment you need. For example, blood in your stools or bottom could simply be haemorrhoids, especially if this is the only isolated symptom. A change in bowel habits can be associated with your diet, constipation or other conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Created in partnership with Beating Bowel Cancer, we created an infographic detailing the difference between bowel cancer and piles which explains more about the symptoms to look out for.
It's Often Diagnosed Late, Why?
From an early age we're taught to wee and poo in private. If you have your toddler out of nappies by the age of two - take a bow. We think bottoms and all the stuff that goes on in our stomach is embarrassing, private and dirty, but this attitude is a killer. 'Everything that eats must excrete' shouted Mr Scott, my old science teacher and terrible poet. The fact of the matter is that there's nothing cringeworthy about bowels. Unless you accidently break wind on a first date or in a quiet lift, but that's just a funny antidote for later.
In 2012, statistics indicated that 12% more men were diagnosed with bowel cancer than women. Perhaps that's because symptoms are similar to haemorrhoids and IBS, so they can dismiss it as nothing important. We know men avoid doctor appointments as much as they avoid the instructions for Ikea flat packs.
Whilst we joke, studies have shown that men are more likely to get bowel cancer and men are more likely to avoid the doctors. This combination leads to later diagnosis and more of a chance of bowel cancer spreading.
The over-sixties are more at risk of bowel cancer. Perhaps this is because they've had more years of passing food and drink through their systems, more intake of pesticides or maybe because they don't like to make a fuss about early symptoms.
When you visit your parents or grandparents, bring up Decembeard - have a laugh at the name and casually say 'I didn't realise blood in your poo can mean bowel cancer' just plant the seeds, because those words can be hard for an embarrassed person to utter.
My parents are literally sick of me bringing up poo, phlegm, mouth ulcers and burning wee every time I visit. Sorry guys, but it's better safe than sorry.
How To Minimise Your Risk
There are certain conditions that heighten your risk including a family history of bowel cancer, Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, acromegaly or a genetic condition such as Lynch syndrome or FAP.
There are also lifestyle factors that you can do to help minimise the risk of bowel cancer in the future:
- Eat well: The NHS recommends cutting down on red meat, fatty foods and cured foods. You should eat fruit and vegetables, cereals, beans and fish instead.
- Exercise: Jolly old exercise always pops up doesn't it? Evidence suggests that regular exercise lowers the risk for all cancers. The NHS says you need 2.5 hours of moderate intensity aerobics every week - that's cycling or fast walking put simply. Think about it – that's easy.
- Quit Smoking and Ditch Alcohol: Pack in the ciggies and stick to recommended levels of alcohol and you're almost there.
- Don't Ignore Symptoms: If you have symptoms or you're offered NHS bowel screening, do it.
Embarrassment and head-burying should not be a reason to die. If you have any bowel cancer symptoms, get along to your doctor ASAP. If not, consider growing a manly hipster chin covering for Decembeard and raise some much-needed awareness.
Bowel Cancer Screening
If you happen to have symptoms, or have a heightened risk of getting bowel cancer, you can go to your doctor who will provide a screening. This means any non-cancerous lumps and growths (polyps) may also be discovered before they become cancerous in the future.
For those past a certain age, you will be offered bowel cancer screening as standard (the joys of our NHS), which are advised every two years. The ages vary slightly depending on where you live in the UK:
- For the Scottish, you can receive yours every two years between the ages of 50-74 years
- For the English, Welsh and Northern-Irish, your screening will be every two years between the ages of 60-74 years
The screening process involves a thin flexible tube with a camera used to inspect the bowel area, also known as flexible sigmoidoscopy or bowel scope screening. Whilst it can be invasive, it is not extremely painful. Other tests conducted are the faecal occult blood test (FOBT) and the faecal immunochemical test (FIT) that involves taking samples of your poo to the doctors for analysis. The FOBT requires three samples from three days whilst the FIT requires one. The results take approximately two weeks.
Doing your bit
Decembeard is an awareness-raising event specifically designed to highlight the symptoms and effects of bowel cancer. They're aiming to get 5,000 men to raise half a million in support, so if you know someone who can grow a beard and get sponsored during the festive period, or want to grow some fuss yourself, get on over there. I would but I lack the right hormones, but anyone can donate!