Bowel cancer, also known as colorectal cancer, usually starts in the lining of the large bowel (colon or rectum). It can grow there for a long time before spreading to other parts of the body. It starts from tiny growths in the bowel wall, called polyps. Only some polyps will grow into cancer.
Bowel cancer kills 42 men in Australia every week. However, if caught early enough, nearly all cases can be cured.
Am I at risk?
Your risk of bowel cancer is greater if you:
- are aged 50 or over
- have a strong family history of bowel cancer
- have had serious inflammatory bowel disease (ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease) for more than eight years
- have inherited a particular genetic disorder
- have a poor diet and do not exercise
- have a waistline over 94cm
If these factors apply to you, talk to your doctor or pharmacist about your risk of bowel cancer.
You can also try the Bowel Cancer Risk Calculator to help you identify things that may increase your risk of bowel cancer. It will also indicate your risk of bowel cancer based on your personal and family history of polyps and cancer.
What are the symptoms?
Not all bowel cancers show symptoms, however you should see your doctor if you notice:
- bleeding from the back passage or any sign of blood after a bowel motion
- a change in usual bowel habit, such as straining (constipation) to go to the toilet or loose motions (diarrhoea)
- abdominal pain or bloating
- weight loss for no obvious reason, or loss of appetite
- symptoms of anaemia – including unexplained tiredness, weakness or breathlessness.
Experiencing any of the symptoms listed does not necessarily mean you have bowel cancer. Any unusual or persisting symptoms should be reported to your doctor immediately.
What can I do to reduce my risk?
Bowel cancer is one of the most preventable cancers. Many lifestyle risk factors may contribute to bowel cancer. Your most effective protection against bowel cancer is to:
- screen for bowel cancer every two years if aged 50–74 years
- get 30 to 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity exercise per day
- maintain a healthy body weight
- eat a well balanced diet
- avoid processed and burnt meat
- limit red meat intake to three to four times per week
- avoid or limit your alcohol intake
- quit smoking.
Remember, if you have any concerns or questions, contact your doctor or pharmacist.
Bottom line on beating bowel cancer: Faecal Occult Blood Test (FOBT)
If you are 50–74 years, Cancer Council recommends a simple screening test every two years. Regular screening is important because you can have bowel cancer without any noticeable symptoms.
The test, called a faecal occult blood test (FOBT), is completed in the privacy of your own home. An FOBT looks for traces of blood in the bowel motion which is invisible to the naked eye. If blood is found, further investigation, usually colonoscopy, is required to determine the cause of the bleeding. In most cases it will not be bowel cancer but it is important to check.
In 2017, if you are turning 50, 54, 55, 58, 60, 64, 68, 70, 72 or 74, you will receive a free FOBT in the mail as part of the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program. This program is expanding and by 2020, all men and women aged 50–74 years will receive a free FOBT in the mail every two years.
If you are aged 50–74 and not yet eligible for the national program:
- ask your doctor or pharmacist about doing an FOBT, or
- purchase one from Cancer Council at cancervic.org.au/boweltest or by calling 13 11 20.
It could save your life.
David’s father (age 74) was diagnosed with bowel cancer 9 years ago. Luckily, it was detected early and he survived, thanks to the bowel cancer screening kit he received in the mail.