Every year, 15,610 Australians are told they have bowel cancer, is the third most common cancer in Australia and affects both men and women, young and old.
Bowel cancer (also known as colorectal cancer) is a cancer that begins in the bowel. Depending on where the cancer is located, it can be called colon or rectal cancer. It can occur at any age, although the risk of developing it increases with age. It is important to note that if caught early, bowel cancer can often be treated effectively.
Most bowel cancers start as benign, non-threatening growths – called polyps – on the wall or lining of the bowel. Polyps are usually harmless; however, adenomatous polyps can become cancerous (malignant) and if left undetected, can develop into a cancerous tumour.
Signs and symptoms
During the early stages people may have no symptoms, that’s why regular screening can help identify potential issues before they become more serious.
There are three main symptoms of bowel cancer:
- Blood in the stools (faeces) or rectal bleeding
- Changes in bowel habits especially if severe
- Abdominal pain or swelling
It is important to note that these symptoms are quite common and most people with them do not actually have bowel cancer. Blood in the stool can be caused by haemorrhoids and changes in bowel habits or abdominal pain is usually caused by diet. So it is important to get checked to make sure.
Other symptoms include:
- A change in the shape or appearance of bowel movements (e.g., more narrow than usual)
- Pain or a lump in the anus or rectum
- Anaemia: for bleeding from the tumour. That can cause you tiredness and unexplained weight loss
- A feeling that the bowel has not emptied completely after a bowel movement
- Faecal incontinence: if the tumour affects the anal sphincters, it can cause them to not work properly and result in faecal incontinence. This occurs when the tumour is very low, in the last 4 centimetres of the rectum, which is called the anal canal.
- Anal discharge: emission of pus from or around the anus due to tumour infection
The symptoms of bowel cancer can be subtle and don't necessarily make you feel ill. Most bowel cancers are diagnosed at 50 years and over, and that’s why it is important to monitor for these symptoms as people get older. An early detection could save your life, if you are experiencing any of the above symptoms for more than two weeks, don’t hesitate to talk to your GP about them.
There are two kinds of risk factors, those that can be changed (modifiable) and those that cannot be changed (non-modifiable).
- Modifiable: These can be modified through diet and lifestyle such as having a healthy diet (reducing red meats and processed foods), getting regular exercise, maintaining a healthy weight, limiting the amount of alcohol and quitting smoking.
- Non Modifiable: Age, family history, hereditary conditions and personal health history are some of the non-modifiable risks. People with certain diseases and illnesses seem to be more prone to developing bowel cancer.
Screening and surveillance
Screening and getting checked early is the best way to check for bowel cancer on time. Depending on your personal level of risk, it is important to make the appropriate screenings for the chance of successful treatment.
- For people at average or near average risk of bowel cancer, Australian medical guidelines recommend screening using a faecal immunochemical test (FIT) every 2 years between ages 50-74.
- If you have one relative diagnosed with bowel cancer at age 55 years or older, screening should be considered every 2 years. From age 45 you will need extra testing to find bowel cancer early. This could include having regular colonoscopies.
The faecal immunochemical test (FIT) is a screening test for bowel cancer that can be completed in the privacy of your home. It tests for non-visible blood in poo, which can be an early sign of bowel cancer. Medicines and foods do not interfere with the test.
If the person receives a positive result from an at-home screening test they should be referred by their GP to a specialist for colonoscopy within 30 days for further investigation.
If a person experiences symptoms suggestive of bowel cancer for two weeks or longer, they should be referred by their GP to a specialist for colonoscopy within 30 days in order to investigate the cause.
Bowel care support
Bowel Cancer Australia provides full support for Australians affected by the disease because no one should face bowel cancer alone.
For more information and support visit: bowelcanceraustralia.
THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS A SILLY QUESTION!
Australia: (02) 9531 2011
International: +61 2 9531 2011
Disclaimer: No content on this website, or in this article, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.