According to Bowel Cancer UK, bowel cancer is the fourth most common type of cancer in the United Kingdom. It is our nation’s second biggest killer behind lung cancer.
Your bowel plays a critical function. Part of the digestive system as a whole, it comprises the small bowel (small intestine) and the large bowel (colon and rectum). Large bowel cancer is far more common than small bowel cancer and is known as bowel or colorectal cancer.
The majority of bowel cancer cases develop from pre-cancerous growths known as polyps. Not all polyps are cancerous, but they should be checked by a doctor to be certain. If left, and they are cancerous, the cancer can quickly spread to other areas of the body, such as the liver and lungs.
Each year, 42,000 people receive a diagnosis of bowel cancer. 94% of cases are in those over 50 years of age, while 59% of those are aged 70 years plus. However, 2,500 cases are diagnosed in people under 50 each year as well. In England, Wales, and Northern Ireland bowel cancer screening is offered from the age of 60. In Scotland, screening starts at 50 years old. The screenings are carried out every two years until the age of 75 and take the form of a FIT (Faecal Immunochemical Test) which can be submitted via post. Results take approximately a fortnight and if clear require no further action. If the result is unclear, an invite is given for a bowel scope screening or colonoscopy.
With 1 in 15 men (and 1 in 18 women) diagnosed with bowel cancer in their lifetime, it really is worth being aware of the signs and symptoms and putting embarrassment aside to go to your GP for an early diagnosis if you are concerned. If diagnosed early, bowel cancer is curable; if left beyond the first stage, the prognosis is not good.
Bowel Cancer: Signs & Symptoms
NB: Sudden onset of strong pains in the stomach area, combined with bloating and nausea and/or vomiting can be a sign of a blocked bowel or bowel obstruction. You may be unable to defecate or even pass wind. Seek immediate help from your GP or the A&E department.
These signs and symptoms are not unique to bowel cancer, so don’t panic if you do exhibit them. Other causes are simply constipation or diarrhoea, piles (haemorrhoids) or an anal fissure, IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome), diverticular disease, Crohn’s disease, or ulcerative colitis. The NHS has made available guidance sheets on all these.
Over 16,000 people die from bowel cancer each year. Age and genetics play a part, unfortunately, with a family history of bowel cancer significantly increasing the odds of developing the same cancer as a relative. However, this is a figure much lower than half a century ago, due in no small part to better education in what constitutes a healthy lifestyle. Around 6% of bowel cancer cases are linked to alcohol consumption and 7% to smoking. Those with Type-II diabetes are at increased risk also, with 11% of bowel cancer cases attributed to obesity or being overweight. Similarly, those who have lifelong trouble with polyps or an inflamed bowel from Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis are at increased risk as well.
Despite discussions over the efficacy of aspirins and statins in stopping the development of bowel cancer, it is strongly warned against using these as preventative measures.
It is believed approximately 54% of bowel cancer cases could be prevented through a healthier lifestyle. The main tenets of a better diet for the bowel are avoiding processed meat and limiting red meat, staying hydrated, and consuming an adequate quantity of fibre (found in wholegrains, pulses, and fresh fruit and vegetables). Keeping your weight at an optimum mark on the scales is also suggested.
Fibre: Fast Facts
Adds bulk to faecal matter to aid its progress through the gut, preventing constipation. Wholegrain foods like brown rice, wholewheat, and spelt are good sources, as are nuts, seeds, dried figs, and the skins of potatoes.
Water-soluble, it forms a gel-like substance in the gut, so bowel movements are soft and smooth. Soluble fibre can also lower cholesterol. Key sources are oats and barley, beans and peas, and fresh fruit and vegetables. The antioxidants in fresh fruit and vegetables provide protection from cell damage, too.
Since January this year, supporters of Bowel Cancer UK have been in training (and shall continue to be until 30th April) for Challenge 2020. Running, jogging, even walking 16km, 42km, or a whopping 268k to raise money for the charity, these lovely folk are striving to make a greater part of the population aware of this form of cancer. It’s not too late to help, either.
You don’t have to have been getting up to physical speed (in all senses of the word) since that start of the year off the back of some long-forgotten New Year’s resolution. If this seems like something you yourself might want to do, then sign up for an Ultra Challenge (covering 20km, 50km, or 100km) and take the steps to the finish line later this year at whatever pace is right for you. It might be a race, but it isn’t a race against others, only the Big C.