Bowel cancer, also known as colorectal cancer, is a malignant growth inside the lining of the large bowel. Most bowel cancers start out as polyps, which look like small spots on the bowel lining or like cherries on stalks, protruding from the wall of the bowel.
Australians have a high incidence of bowel cancer. It is the most common internal cancer, with 13,000 new cases diagnosed each year. It is also the second most common cause of cancer‐related death (after lung cancer), with one person dying from bowel cancer in Australia every two hours.
The most common symptoms of bowel cancer are; blood or mucus in the stool, unexplained changes in bowel habits (e.g. diarrhoea, constipation, incomplete emptying of bowel), discomfort in abdomen (such as pain, cramps, bloating, fullness), thinner than usual bowel motions, unexplained weight loss, fatigue and weakness.
Treatment depends on the stage of the bowel cancer. The affected area of the bowel will often be removed surgically. A stoma (shunt that funnels waste out of the bowel and into an external bag) may be needed while the bowel heals and in some cases, permanently.
Chemotherapy or radiotherapy is also used post‐surgery in the majority of cases. Sometimes, the bowel cancer will progress to other parts of the body and a cure is not possible. Even in these situations, using a range of therapies, the cancer can often be managed for quite a long time.
Risk and prevention
The exact cause of bowel cancer is unknown, however certain factors increase your risk. Family history, age, genetic factors and your personal medical history can all play a part. The good news is that research suggests lifestyle changes such as eating a balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables and high‐fibre grains, getting regular exercise and maintaining a healthy weight could all help reduce your risk of bowel cancer.
Bowel cancer screening
Ninety per cent of bowel cancers are treatable if caught early. Unfortunately, most bowel cancers show no symptoms in the early stages so many people do not realise that something is wrong until it’s too late. A simple faecal occult blood test (FOBT) available from your doctor can be used as a screening tool to detect early stage bowel cancer. Ask your GP for more information.
June 5‐11 2011 is Bowel Cancer Awareness Week
Published with the permission of the Jean Hailes Foundation for Women’s Health. For more health information visit the website www.jeanhailes.org.au or call the toll free number 1800 JEAN HAILES (532 642).
Photo credit: Bowel Cancer Australia incorporating Bowel Cancer Foundation