Bowel cancer is cancer that starts in the large bowel. It is also known as colorectal cancer, colon or rectal cancer depending on if it starts in the large bowel (your colon) or rectum. It can spread to other parts of the body or grow into the surrounding organs. Bowel cancer is not the same as anal cancer or small bowel cancer.
Most people that are diagnosed with bowel cancer are over the age of 60 but bowel cancer is currently one of the most common cancers diagnosed in the UK.
What are the effects on the body?
The signs and symptoms of bowel cancer:
· Unexplained weight loss
· Feeling very tired, but for no obvious reason
· Blood in your stools or from your bottom when you go
· A change in your bowel habits with no obvious explanation
· Pain or a lump in your stomach
All these signs and symptoms could be something else, including haemorrhoids or simply a change in diet, but it is important to see your GP if you are concerned. The earlier bowel cancer is diagnosed, the easier and more successful any treatment will be. There is a screening programme for England in which people between the ages of 60 and 74 are sent a home testing kit every two years and everyone is offered a bowel scope screening test around age 55. This is an examination that takes around 15 minutes and looks inside the lower part of the bowel, where most cancers develop.
If you are diagnosed with bowel cancer, you will also be told what stage it is at. This describes the size of the cancer and if it has spread, how far. Staging and grading your bowel cancer will help your doctor to decide which treatments might work best for you.
Doctors may use any or all the below systems for working out the size and stage of bowel cancer, and how fast the tumor may grow or spread:
· Tumour, Node, Metastases (TNM) staging system – this is the most common system used
· Duke’s system
· Number system – Grades 1-3
What are the causes of bowel cancer?
The exact causes of bowel cancer are not currently known, but there are some factors that could increase your risk of developing it.
· Your age -According to Cancer Research UK “almost 6 in 10 bowel cancer cases in the UK each year are diagnosed in people 70 or over.”
· Inherited conditions – A strong family history of bowel cancer can increase your risk but also conditions such as Familial adenomatous polyposis, Lynch syndrome or a fault with the BRCA1 gene (also linked to the development of breast cancer). If you are concerned about your family history, see your GP as there are screening programmes for those at higher risk.
· Diet – low fibre or a diet that includes a lot of processed or red meat can increase risk. Read our blog on The best foods to eat for maintaining a healthy digestive system
· Your weight – bowel cancer is more commonly found in people who are overweight or obese and those that do very little exercise
· Previous or existing conditions such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis can increase risk of bowel cancer developing. Having them for many years increases the risk by up to 70%
· Alcohol – 10% of cases of bowel cancer in the UK are linked to drinking alcohol
· Smoking – As with alcohol, 1 in 10 (10%) of cases of bowel cancer in the UK are linked to smoking, with the risk increasing the more cigarettes you smoke in a day
Treatments and relief
A team of doctors and other professionals (a multidisciplinary team) will discuss the best care for you. They will talk to you about your treatment, its benefits and the possible side effects. You can ask questions or raise concerns at any point.
The treatment you receive will depend on:
· Where your cancer is located within your bowel
· If it has grown or spread (the stage)
· How abnormal the cells look under a microscope (the grade)
· Your general health and level of fitness
If your bowel cancer is diagnosed early on, the usual treatments will be surgery to remove the cancer, with chemotherapy and radiotherapy to destroy the remaining cancerous cells. It is possible to cure bowel cancer and prevent it from returning if it is caught at an early stage. Some bowel cancers detected at a very early stage may not require chemotherapy after surgery.
However, if the cancer is more advanced a complete cure may not be possible. The cancer could also recur at a later stage. Symptoms can be controlled, and the cancer slowed down using a combination of treatments that your doctor will discuss with you.
Every diagnosis of bowel cancer will be unique, so treatment plans will also reflect this.
Reducing the risk
According to scientists around 54% of all cases of bowel cancer could be prevented by a change of lifestyle. Ways that you could reduce your risk are:
· Cutting down on alcohol and smoking or avoiding both completely
· Avoiding processed and red meats and eating more fibre and wholegrains
· Exercising regularly – at least 30 minutes of physical activity five times a week is recommended
Read more about Reducing your risk here at bowelcancer.org.uk
The information in this article is intended as general advice only. If you or your family members require medical advice or have any medical concerns, please contact your GP.
Please note that not all conditions discussed above are covered by every CS Healthcare plan. For more information on what is covered please visit our FAQ page or speak to one of our friendly sales advisers on 0800 917 4325^