Bowel cancer is the second leading cause of death due to cancer in the UK and affects one in 20 people. Bowel cancer is the term used to describe cancers that affect your colon (large bowel) and rectum (the last section of your gut).
Most bowel cancers develop gradually over a period of years, starting as small non-cancerous polyps or growths on the inside of your bowel wall. If these polyps are spotted at an early stage, they can be treated very easily. However, bowel cancer is hard to spot and it can spread, which is why it is so important to be vigilant for any symptoms.
Watch out for a change in your bowel habits; it could be diarrhoea or constipation, whichever is unusual for you, lasting three or more weeks, feeling as if you still need to go to the loo after using the toilet, and unexplained abdominal pain. Never ignore blood on the toilet paper or in the loo after you’ve opened your bowels. This may be due to piles or a small fissure around your bottom, but always check with your doctor straight away. Other symptoms include unexplained weight loss, tiredness and breathlessness.
As you get older it’s more important to look for the signs because your risk of bowel cancer increases as you age. If you’re a smoker, obese, don’t do any exercise and have a diet rich in alcohol and red and processed meats (such as sausages) and low in vegetables, you’ll have an even greater risk. Type 2 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease such as Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis, can all predispose you to bowel cancer.
If you’re worried that you have any of the signs of bowel cancer, see your GP. They will examine your abdomen, and do a rectal examination by placing a gloved finger internally to feel for abnormalities. It may not seem very dignified but it’s an important test so don’t be embarrassed to see your GP.
They may do some blood tests and arrange further investigations, such as a colonoscopy (where a camera is passed in through your back passage to look for problems) or a CT scan.
You can reduce your risk of bowel cancer by keeping active, eating a vegetable-rich diet, stopping smoking and reducing your alcohol intake. A national screening programme offers screening every two years for those aged 60-75 to try to detect bowel cancer in those without symptoms.
If you are over 75, you can request a screening kit via a freephone helpline (0800 707 6060) which involves checking a sample of your poo for blood. In some areas of the UK a ‘flexible sigmoidoscopy’ test is offered when you reach 55. A small camera is used to check inside your bowel for polyps and detect bowel cancer early.
- Dr Trisha writes a column every fortnight in Yours magazine. Ask Dr Trisha about your health problems by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.