What is bowel cancer?
Bowel cancer is any form of cancer that affects your large intestines and end at the rectum. There are other parts of the intestines or the anus that can be affected by cancer but these are different to bowel cancer itself. Bowel cancer often starts off as a pre-cancerous polyp which can then get more and more unusual before leading to a cancer.
What are the symptoms of bowel cancer?
Very early on, bowel cancer can have no symptoms at all, which is why we have screening programs to pick it up extra early where treatment outcomes are really good. If the bowel cancer grows, it can cause symptoms such as:
• Abdominal pain
• Blood in the poo or on the toilet paper
• A change in your poo – such as becoming different shaped, going to the toilet more or less often, a feeling of urgency to poo or pain when you go to the toilet
• Feeling a lump in the abdomen or rectum
• A feeling of not having fully emptied your bowel after a poo
• Unintentional weight loss
A low blood count (called anaemia) is something that might be found that can be caused by a bowel cancer and we often get people checked up for that when it’s found.
How do I get tested for bowel cancer?
There are two ways of getting tested for bowel cancer. The first is called screening where we try and find the cancer before symptoms occur so we can treat it early. Screening is offered to Australians over the age of 50. There are two forms of screening. The first is called a faecal occult blood test or FOBT. A small sample of poo is taken and tested for traces of blood. Because bowel cancers can bleed unnoticed, checking for small amounts of blood can alert to us to a problem early. The second way of screening is by a colonoscopy.
A colonoscopy can also be done to check out anyone who has symptoms. For a colonoscopy, you need to clean out the bowel to get good pictures so a couple of days before the test, you drink a fluid and change your diet to empty the whole colon. Then under a bit of sedation so you don’t remember, a doctor called a gastroenterologist passes a camera in through the anus (your bottom) and looks at the whole large intestine. If any little polyps or other masses are found, she can take a sample at the time to be tested.
If a cancer is found or suspected, other tests must be done to look at where the cancer is, and if it has spread. These include CT scans or PET scans.
How is bowel cancer treated?
Like most cancers, bowel cancer is treated with a combination of surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy although not all patients get all treatments.
What causes bowel cancer?
Like all cancers, bowel cancer has a number of things that can make it more or less likely to occur. There are some things like genetics, age or familial conditions that we can’t do anything about. Then there are other things like diet, alcohol, or carrying extra weight that we can modify to reduce your risk. Eating a lot of red meat, smoked or cured meat and drinking alcohol are all things that we know increase the risk. Likewise, not getting enough vegetables or whole grains in the diet increase the risk.
To decrease the risk, try and reduce your intake of red meat and cured meats, drink alcohol in moderation and aim for your daily quota of fruit, vegetables and whole grains.
I’m young, do I need to be worried about bowel cancer?
A few years ago, we would have said not to worry. However, recent research has shown that bowel cancer in younger people (under 50 years old) is becoming more common. In the last three decades, there has been a 186% increase in bowel cancer occurring in people age 15-24 years. Scientists think that this is a combination of lifestyle factors such as alcohol consumption and dietary factors such as eating lots of red meat and not enough vegetables and wholegrains.
For more information, visit Bowel Cancer Australia and if you have any concerns, see your GP.