Bowel Cancer Awareness Month

Bowel Cancer is the UK’s second biggest cause of cancer death but what many people don’t know is that Endoscopy can often be a life saver and the only way to detect the presence of polyps or cancer at an early stage. This Bowel Cancer Awareness Month, Consultant Colorectal Surgeon, Mr Pasha Nisar tells you why you should pay attention to these common symptoms and why a colonoscopy procedure is your best option for bowel cancer prevention and early diagnosis and treatment.

The prevalence of bowel cancer

Around 16,000 people die from bowel cancer each year. Fortunately, it can be treated at early or advanced stages, but, if you are diagnosed early, there is a 90% cure rate. Curative surgery is also highly successful for bowel cancer caught in its early stages and is usually conducted as a keyhole procedure with an enhanced recovery.

If you have advanced cancer, you can be treated before you have surgery usually with chemotherapy and radiotherapy (in rectal cancer) to ‘downstage’ it and make the tumour operable. But in some cases where cancer might have spread to your lymph nodes or other organs such as the liver, chemotherapy will usually be given in combination with your surgery.

Symptoms you should look out for

Patients diagnosed with bowel cancer commonly have one or more of the following symptoms. But be aware, just because you have these symptoms it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have cancer and equally, early-stage cancer may not cause overt symptoms. Symptoms you should look out for include:

  • Abdominal pain: This can be a symptom of bowel cancer but can also be linked to other, less serious conditions such as IBS or discomfort and bloating brought on by eating. And because you might find yourself eating less, this can cause unintentional weight loss.  
    • Although sudden weight loss is a possible sign of bowel cancer, it can also be linked to other conditions such as IBD, coeliac disease, stomach ulcers, eating disorders and stress.
  • Persistent change in bowel habit with looser stools -sometimes with abdominal pain:
    • Changes in your bowel habit lasting up to a couple of weeks are also common. However, a change in your bowel habit lasting longer should be investigated. “Normal” bowel habit varies widely – some people open their bowels several times a day whereas others go every two or three days.
  • Rectal bleeding, particularly if haemorrhoids have been ruled out as the cause:
    • Bleeding from your back passage is most commonly caused by haemorrhoids (piles) particularly if it is bright red blood. Haemorrhoids are swollen veins inside your anal canal that cause bleeding often after straining to open your bowels. However, blood in your stool can also be a sign of bowel cancer and should be investigated. If the blood is dark red or your stool looks black and tarry it may be caused by bleeding higher up in the bowel or from a stomach ulcer.
  • Anaemia: Did you know that one in four people with this type of cancer are anaemic
    • The reason is that the lining of your bowel can bleed in small amounts over a long period of time without you even noticing it. Over time, this can lead to iron deficiency, anaemia. Symptoms of anaemia can be very mild and easily overlooked. Luckily, a simple blood test to measure haemoglobin, is used to identify anaemia.

In more urgent cases, cancer can cause an obstruction in the bowel. This requires emergency admission and treatment. If this happens, you might experience:

  • Intermittent and occasional severe abdominal pain when you eat
  • Unintentional weight loss, with persistent abdominal pain
  • Vomiting with abdominal swelling

Risk Factors that can increase your chance of bowel cancer

You may be predisposed to the development of bowel or colorectal cancer if you have a family history of bowel cancer along with bowel cancer genetic traits.

Men are also more likely than women to develop colorectal cancer.

Other risk factors for bowel cancer include:

  • Being over the age of 50
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • A lifestyle lacking in exercise
  • Longstanding inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis
  • A history of polyps in your bowel
  • Smoking
  • A diet high in red or processed meat

What can you do to reduce bowel cancer risk?

Paying attention to symptoms and seek medical advice is always the best thing to do, especially if any risk factor is present.

Blood tests and stool examination are useful diagnostic tests but it is important to remember that these results do not necessarily guarantee your protection from bowel cancer and concerning symptoms will still need investigation. 

A Colonoscopy is the only examination that can look for precancerous or cancerous cells in your bowel.

What happens at a Colonoscopy?

Colonoscopy is the only investigation that will provide you with accurate detection of any issues within your bowel, giving you peace of mind. The procedure is conducted using a camera that your Gastroenterologist or Colorectal Surgeon will insert through your back passage usually under a mild sedative.

A Colonoscopy is advantageous because it is both diagnostic and therapeutic; that is, your Consultant can remove your polyps (benign precancerous lesions) and at the same time, take biopsies if needed.  The day before your Colonoscopy, you will be advised to take laxatives and adhere to a diet.

A Colonoscopy only lasts 20 minutes and you will be told of the findings straight away, assured of the status of your bowel health. You will be able to go home after a couple of hours.

Helpful tips to prevent bowel cancer

The best way to look after your bowel health is through lifestyle modifications. Here is a list of things that you can do:

If you are concerned about your symptoms or need further information on bowel cancer and Colonoscopy, you can speak to one of our specialist Consultant Colorectal Surgeons.

Call us on 020 8949 9020 or fill in our online form.

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