Bowel cancer often develops without any obvious warning signs
What is bowel cancer?
When your doctor talks about bowel cancer (also known as colorectal cancer) they are referring to cancer of the colon or rectum.
Bowel cancer is a malignant growth that develops most commonly in the lining of the large bowel. Most bowel cancers develop from tiny growths called polyps. Not all polyps become cancerous.
Over time some polyps can become cancerous. Cancer can narrow and block the bowel or cause bleeding. In more advanced cases, the cancer can spread beyond the bowel to other organs.
As most bowel cancers start as polyps, all polyps should be removed to reduce your risk of developing the disease. Almost all polyps can be removed without an operation during the procedure of colonoscopy.
Once removed from the bowel, the polyp can no longer develop into cancer. Even if a polyp develops into cancer, in its early stages it can be cured by surgery.
The risk factors, for both men and women include:
- Age - risk rises sharply and progressively from the age of 50
- A family history of bowel cancer
- A personal history of cancer of the colon, rectum, ovary, endometrium, or breast
- A history of polyps in the colon
- A history of ulcerative colitis (ulcers in the lining of the large intestine) or Crohn's disease
- Hereditary conditions, such as Familial Adenomatous Polyposis (FAP) and Hereditary Non-Polyposis Colon Cancer (HNPCC; Lynch Syndrome).
There is emerging evidence regarding type 2 diabetes (usually non-insulin dependent) as a potential risk factor for bowel cancer, however further research is required.
In its early stages, bowel cancer often has no symptoms. Some people, however, may experience the symptoms listed below.
Not everyone who experiences these symptoms has bowel cancer. Other medical conditions, some foods or medicines can also cause these changes.
If you are experiencing any of the following symptoms for more than two weeks, don't delay in talking to your doctor about them.
Possible signs and symptoms of bowel cancer can include:
- A change in bowel habit - a recent, persistent change in bowel habit such as looser, more diarrhoea-like bowel movements, constipation, or smaller more frequent bowel movements (i.e. going to the toilet more often, or trying to go - irregularity in someone whose bowel movements have previously been regular)
- A change in appearance of bowel movements - for example, narrower stools than usual or mucus in stools
- Blood in the stool or rectal bleeding - bright red or very dark
- Frequent gas pain, cramps or a feeling of fullness or bloating in the bowel or rectum
- A feeling that the bowel has not emptied completely after a bowel movement
- Unexplained anemia (a low red blood count) causing tiredness, weakness or weight loss
- Rectal or anal pain or a lump in the rectum or anus
- Abdominal pain or swelling or a lump or mass in your tummy
What is the impact on Australians?
Bowel cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in Australia after lung cancer.
Over 15,000 Australians are diagnosed with the disease each year.
Around 1,000 people diagnosed with bowel cancer are under the age of 50.
Around 4,000 people die from the disease each year, more than from breast or prostate cancer.
Who is affected?
Australia has one of the highest rates of bowel cancer in the world.
Bowel cancer affects men and women almost equally.
1 in 13 Australians will develop bowel cancer in their lifetime.
How can it be prevented?
Most bowel cancers develop from pre-cancerous growths called polyps.
Early detection and removal of pre-cancerous polyps prevents the development of bowel cancer.
Lifestyle factors can also help reduce the risk – a healthy body weight, regular physical activity, not smoking, a diet rich in fruit, vegetables and fibre, and moderate alcohol consumption. For further information click here