What is bowel cancer?
The bowel is part of the digestive system. This type of cancer starts in the innermost lining of the large bowel (colon). The colon is about 150cm long, with four different sections, including the rectum. Cancer can occur in any of those sections. It usually begins as a small growth, called a polyp or adenoma. Bowel cancer is sometimes called colorectal cancer or colon cancer. When it occurs in the ‘back passage’, it’s called rectal cancer.
Change for good
Granted, it’s not a pleasant topic. Bowel habits are embarrassing and uncomfortable to discuss with anyone, doctor or otherwise. But when bowel cancer is detected early, there’s a 90 per cent chance of successful treatment and recovery. So if something’s amiss in your down-there department, addressing it sooner rather than later should be a no-brainer.
Know the signs
Bowel cancer symptoms can masquerade as other less serious problems, which may be why people tend to ignore them and hope they’ll go away. They may well turn out to be nothing, but you should have them checked out regardless. Remember, you’re not wasting a doctor’s time by raising concerns! Look out for:
• Changes in bowel habits such as increased constipation, diarrhoea, or feeling like your bowels are never completely empty.
• Bloody bowel movements (check the toilet paper and look in the bowl).
• Very thin bowel movements that are difficult to pass.
• Abdominal pain, bloating or cramping.
• Unexplained weight loss.
• Unexplained fatigue or anaemia.
Identify your risk factors
Any of the below sound familiar? They may be raising your chances of bowel cancer.
• Family history
• Inflammatory bowel disease, such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis
• Having a poor, low-fibre diet
• Getting little to no exercise
• High consumption of red meats and/or processed meats
• Heavy alcohol consumption
Keen to screen?
Australians 50 to 74 are encouraged to screen for bowel cancer every five years by taking a faecal occult blood test (FOBT). The government’s National Bowel Cancer Screening Program provides the kits, which you use in the privacy of your home. Simply follow the instructions and return the sample in the envelope provided. When you’re eligible, you’ll be sent a free FOBT kit, but your GP can also order the kit for you.
Foster smart habits
• Eat a ‘clean’ diet high in fresh wholefoods and low in processed junk.
• Keep your body mass index (BMI) and waist circumference within the normal range. Find guides at healthyactive.gov.au.
• Get plenty of physical activity.
• Don’t smoke.
• Drink alcohol in moderation (or not at all).
• Take up the free screening opportunities (see above)
• Don’t bury your head in the sand if you experience any symptoms!
What happens next?
If you present with symptoms, several different tests may be ordered.
• Full physical exam Your GP will also discuss your lifestyle and current health habits with you.
• Digital rectal exam (DRE) Your doctor uses a lubricated gloved finger to check for lumps or other unusual signs.
• Colonoscopy Performed under light sedation, a thin, flexible tube called a colonoscope is fed into the large intestine. A small camera helps the surgeon see the bowel and intestinal lining. A colonoscopy detects any abnormal growths such as polyps, inflamed tissue or ulcers. If polyps are discovered, they may be removed during the procedure for further examination.
• MRI or CT scan These are types of X-rays that help detect cancer by producing cross-sectional and 3D images of the area.
• Ultrasound Uses sound waves to detect abnormalities.
• PET scan A small amount of radioactive glucose is injected into the bloodstream, causing cancer cells to light up brightly during imaging.
If cancer is detected, treatment will depend on the ‘stage’ it is in. Early-stage cancers may be treated with surgery to remove the affected part of the colon. Later-stage cancers that have penetrated the bowel wall or spread to other organs will require more aggressive treatment, which may include surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.
Find out more
If you have a family history of bowel cancer or other concerns, discuss your screening options with your GP, call 1800 118 868 or visit cancerscreening.gov.au.