Not many people know that bowel cancer is the second largest cancer killer in Australia (Cancer Council, Australia). We also have one of the highest rates of bowel cancer worldwide. To improve screening, early detection and cure, the Australian government has rolled out a nation-wide screening and awareness campaign. The aim is to detect every case as early as possible and reduce fatalities.
What is bowel cancer?
Bowel cancer is the common name for colorectal cancer – cancer of the colon or rectum. Typically, bowel cancer develops from polyps in the bowels. Over time, polyps can become cancerous, although often polyps are benign. Once cancerous, they can narrow and block small intestines and cause bleeding. If undetected and untreated, the cancer can spread to other organs.
Who is at risk of bowel cancer?
And while only 1,000 of the 15,000 persons diagnosed with bowel cancer every year are under the age of 50, as per Health Department data, the truth is that it can strike any one at any age. Sadly, over 200 people under the age of 50, and 4,000 over the age of 50 die of bowel cancer every year. And both genders are just as vulnerable. The gender split in incidence is equal. Having said that, incidence rates were the highest for ages 70-85+ (Cancer Statistics, Australian Government), indicating that the risk increases with age. For a more detailed risk profile based on age, go to www.bowelcanceraustralia.org.
According to stopbowelcancer.org, these are some of the more vulnerable groups:
- Risk rises sharply after the age of 50.
- Those with a tendency for polyps in the small intestines.
- If there is a personal history of breast or ovarian cancer, or previous diagnosis of colorectal cancer, the risk of bowel cancer is higher.
- A family history of colon cancer could increase risk.
- Those with a history of ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease need to be more watchful.
The good news is that bowel cancer is one cancer that is detectable, treatable and beatable.
How can bowel cancer be detected early?
The first step is to understand some of the early symptoms. These could be:
- A change in bowel movement habits – this could be anything out of the ordinary.
- Rectal bleeding
- Unexplained anaemia – resulting in tiredness, listlessness or even weight loss
- Abdominal pain or swelling
The trouble is that some of these could be symptomatic of other medical problems and the possibility of bowel cancer may not come to mind. That is why fewer than 40% of bowel cancer cases are detected early. It is important that you speak to your GP as soon as you have any of the above symptoms and the GP will recommend the right tests. It is also true that bowel cancer develops without any warning signs. That is why routine and proactive screening is considered the best way to improve early detection statistics in Australia.
Ideally, everyone over the age of 50 must be screened every couple of years, along medical guidelines. For those at risk, it is recommended that polyps be removed. Bowel Screen Australia provides a home testing kit that can be purchased in most pharmacies. What this test does is detect even the most miniscule amount of blood in the stools, invisible to the naked eye. A positive result indicates the presence of blood, which then needs further testing and investigation. Your GP may recommend an urgent colonoscopy. A negative test means no blood found and person can wait another year for the next test.
In a bid to boost early detection rates, the government has rolled out the National Bowel Cancer Screening Programme targeting those who turn 50, 55, 58, 60, 64, 68, 70 and 74. This cohort will be entitled to a free screening kit.
If further investigation reveals bowel cancer, then the GP and specialist team may recommend a range of tests – blood tests, x-rays, CT scans, MRI’s, PET scan and ultrasound. This will show the extent of the cancer and indicate if it has spread within the body.
The treatment plan will involve a specialist team. Bowel cancer treatment, like other cancers involves surgery to remove the malignant polyp and chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy to kill other cancer cells. The type, intensity and frequency of this treatment will depend on the diagnoses – the type of cancer cells, how big the tumour is and how good your general health is.
What can keep bowel cancer at bay?
If you have tested negative for a bowel cancer screening test, it is no reason to let down your guard. Cabrini’s Let’s Beat Bowel Cancer initiative recommends taking some of these steps:
- Eat a high-fibre diet comprising a wide variety of fruit and vegetables. National guidelines are 2 serves of fruit and 5 serves of vegetables daily.
- Eat less red and processed meat.
- Quit smoking and consume alcohol in moderation.
- Maintain a healthy body weight – obesity is closely linked to a higher risk of bowel cancer.
Remember, bowel cancer is avoidable and easily detectable. If detected early, the survival rates are very high and survivors have gone on to lead meaningful lives, inspiring others who have been diagnosed. Thanks to government and private initiatives, bowel cancer sufferers have a lot of support. So screen early and regularly, live healthy lifestyle and stay cancer free.
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Medical information published on this website is of a general nature only and not intended to be a substitute for informed healthcare professional advice or clinical care. If you have specific healthcare concerns or issues you should consult with a qualified health care professional such as your own GP.