Get behind it: Bowel Cancer Awareness Month

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Image source: Bowel Cancer Australia

According to Bowel Cancer Australia, bowel cancer (also known as colorectal cancer) is Australia’s second biggest cancer killer, claiming the lives of 80 Australians every week.

Although bowel cancer typically affects both men and women aged 50 years and over, Australians under 50 are still at high risk.

Luckily, with regular monitoring and early detection, bowel cancer can often be managed effectively - it is one of the most treatable types of cancer if found early.

In recognition of Bowel Cancer Awareness Month running throughout June, we’ve pulled key information from the Better Health Channel and Bowel Cancer Australia to help you better understand bowel cancer, including how to recognise, treat and reduce your own risk to the disease.

What is bowel cancer?

As defined by Bowel Cancer Australia, bowel cancer is the cancer of the colon or rectum. Most bowel cancers start as benign, non-threatening growths – called polyps – on the wall or lining of the bowel. Polyps are usually harmless; however, adenomatous polyps (adenomas) can become cancerous (malignant). If left undetected, an adenoma can develop into a cancerous tumour.

Symptoms and diagnosis

The early stages of bowel cancer can emit little to no symptoms, which is why screening and regular checks are so important.

The below symptoms can be indicative of bowel cancer and if persistent for longer than two weeks, should be investigated by a GP immediately:

  • A change in bowel habits, especially if severe (including diarrhoea, constipation or the feeling of incomplete emptying)
  • Bleeding from the rectum, or blood in the stool or toilet after a bowel movement
  • A change in the shape or appearance of the stool (e.g., more narrow than usual)
  • Pain or a lump in the anus or rectum
  • Lower abdominal pain

Based on the GP’s assessment, he/she may refer an individual to a specialist for a colonoscopy to determine the cause of the symptoms.
A number of other tests can be used to diagnose bowel cancer, including:

  • A rectal examination
  • Barium enema
  • Ultrasound, PET scan, rectal ultrasound, CT scan or MRI scan
  • Blood tests, including a carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA) test – CEA is produced in high quantities by some cancer cells, especially in bowel cancer.

Treatment

Bowel cancer treatment can include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation or a combination of these.

A person’s treatment plan will be tailored to his/her individual circumstances and condition, and is often decided by:

  • Where the cancer is in the bowel
  • How big the tumour is
  • The number, size and position of any tumours outside the bowel (including lymph nodes)
  • The type of cancer cells – their cell type and genetic makeup
  • The individual’s general health and fitness
  • The individual’s wishes as a patient

For a detailed explanation of bowel cancer treatment options, click here.

Reducing your risk

There are a number of ways that Australians (of all ages) can proactively reduce their risk of bowel cancer, according to Bowel Cancer Australia. These include:

1. Healthy diet and lifestyle choices: Evidence reveals that quitting smoking, limiting alcohol consumption, and eating foods containing dietary fibre are all beneficial. Maintaining a healthy weight and engaging in regular physical activity have also been shown to reduce the risk of colon cancer, but not rectal cancer.

2. Regular bowel cancer screening: Bowel cancer screening is safe and easy and can be done at home. Screening involves placing small samples of toilet water or stool on a special card provided as part of a faecal immunochemical test (FIT). The kit includes a postage paid envelope, in which the samples are mailed to a pathology laboratory. Following analysis, the results are sent to the individual and his/her GP to discuss further.

3. Bowel cancer surveillance: People who have family history of bowel cancer need additional testing to find bowel cancer early. This includes having a colonoscopy every five years. The age at which a person should start regular bowel check-ups depends on his/her risk category, so if you have a family history or an inherited gene mutation, you should make an appointment with your GP to talk about your own risk.

Further information:

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