Bowel cancer is the third most common cancer in the UK, and the second biggest cancer killer after lung cancer. Around one in eighteen of us will get bowel cancer at some point in our lives; the earlier that cancer is detected, the more effective the treatment – so greater awareness, screening and detection all play a vital part in achieving that objective.
Bowel cancer is sometimes linked to a diet that is high in red meat (in particular processed meats such as ham, sausages etc) and low in naturally occurring roughage. So maintaining a healthy gut by restricting your intake of red meat and eating plenty of whole cereals (brown bread, brown rice etc), fresh fruit and vegetables improves your chances of avoiding bowel cancer.
Sometimes bowel cancer is caused by the genes you inherit, so if someone in your immediate family has had bowel cancer – particularly if it occurred at a young age – then you may need to be screened regularly. Bowel cancer is most likely to occur when people are in their sixties, so some time after your 60th birthday you will be invited to take part in the national screening programme. It is estimated that if just 60% of those invited took part, then over a 10-year period the bowel cancer death rate would be cut by around 20%. Screening helps detect cancers and polyps that can potentially develop into cancer.
Symptoms of bowel cancer can be be very subtle. If you experience a change in bowel habit that persists for longer than six weeks, you should see seek medical opinion. Other symptoms can include a bloated feeling, abdominal pain, bleeding from your back passage, unexplained weight loss and tiredness or breathlessness due to anaemia.
The most important investigation is a colonoscopy which is an inspection of the colon with a flexible scope. This allows visualisation of the tumour and biopsy to confirm the diagnosis