April marks national Bowel Cancer Awareness Month, which is dedicated to raising awareness for this important condition (1). Bowel cancer is one of the most common cancers diagnosed in the UK, with about 1 in 20 individuals affected during their lifetime (2).
What is bowel cancer?
Bowel cancer, also known as colorectal cancer, colon cancer, or rectal cancer, is any cancer affecting the large intestine or rectum (2).
What are the risk factors?
Bowel cancer is a multifactorial condition that has the following risk factors associated with it:
- Age – 94% of cases occur in individuals over the age of 50 years (3)
- Diet high in red and processed meats and/or low in fibre
- Physical inactivity
- High alcohol intake
- Male gender
- Family history of bowel cancer – defined as having a parent or sibling who has developed bowel cancel under the age of 50 years, and
- Certain genetic conditions (4).
What are the symptoms of bowel cancer?
The symptoms can sometimes be vague, but commonly include blood in the stool, unintended weight loss, abdominal pain, bloating and/or a change in bowel habits (2). If you are experiencing any of the above, make an appointment with your GP at the earliest opportunity to discuss further.
How is bowel cancer diagnosed?
While there is no single bowel cancer test, the first step in diagnosis is routine blood tests. Your doctor will also assess whether or not you’re suitable for tests on your stool, such as the Faecal Immunochemical Test (FIT) or the Faecal Occult Blood (FOB) test, and/or more specific bowel cancer tests (5).
Another important investigation for bowel cancer is a colonoscopy, which is the use of a thin, flexible camera to take a closer look at the inside of the rectum and colon for any abnormalities. You may also be offered a flexible sigmoidoscopy, a shorter camera test, depending on your medical background. These tests may require some preparation beforehand, so be sure to have a chat with your healthcare provider about what you’ll need to do (5).
Is there screening available?
The NHS bowel cancer screening program is a great service aimed at early detection of bowel cancer. The primary screening tool used is a home-testing kit called the FOB test, however, in some special cases, a scope (camera) test can also be used. Screening is available to all individuals aged 55 years or over, as well as those who have a family history of bowel cancer (2). If you fall into one of these categories, be sure to follow up with your GP to make sure you’re signed up for this service.
Treatment and prognosis
The treatment and prognosis of bowel cancer depend largely on the location, stage, and the type, of cancer. Staging ranges from I to IV, depending on the depth of the tumour and if it has spread. A personalised approach is taken to bowel cancer treatment, which can include surgery, chemotherapy, and/or radiation. Bowel cancer survival rates have more than doubled in the last 40 years, and 57% of individuals with bowel cancer live for more than 10 years after diagnosis (6).
Don a navy-blue bowel cancer awareness ribbon this month and let’s work together to help raise awareness and beat bowel cancer.
This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. myHealthSpecialist makes no representations as to the accuracy or completeness of any of the information in this article or found by following any link from this article. Please consult a doctor or other healthcare professional for medical advice.
Marize Bakhet, Medical graduate