Dr Sal Khalid, consultant gastroenterologist at Spire Cheshire Hospital, talks about bowel cancer.
The term 'bowel cancer' refers to cancer affecting the large bowel or colon. It is therefore also known as colon cancer.
Bowel cancer is one of the most common cancers in the UK. It is estimated that around 40,000 people in UK are diagnosed with this condition each year. It is the second most common cause of cancer-related deaths.
One out of every 17 people will develop bowel cancer at some stage in their life. While most people diagnosed with bowel cancer are aged over 60 years, some people can develop this condition at a much younger age.
If diagnosed early, 90% of these cancers are curable. It is therefore very important to identify these lesions early. Unfortunately the signs and symptoms of bowel cancer can be very subtle and nonspecific. These symptoms don’t necessarily make the patient feel very ill and can easily be ignored or wrongly attributed to other benign conditions resulting in delay in the diagnosis.
Most bowel cancers start as polyps and over five to 15 years grow into bowel cancers. Polyps are fleshy growths within the bowel which are very common.
Almost one out of every four people above the age of 50 years has at least one polyp within their bowel. Timely investigations and early detection offers not only improves chances of cure for bowel cancer but also chances to prevent bowel cancer by removing polyps before they can progress into cancers.
Risk factors for bowel cancer
- Age: risk increases with increasing age. Most cases occur in those older than 60 years.
- Diet: High red or processed meat content and low fibre can increase chances
- Weight: higher risk in overweight and obese
- Exercise: inactive life style increases risk
- Alcohol and smoking: increased risk
- Family history: First degree relatives with bowel cancer (Mother, Father, Sister, Brother) specially if diagnosed early ( less than aged 50 years)
- Underlying bowel condition: Inflammatory bowel disease (Ulcerative colitis, Crohns colitis)
- Previous polyps/bowel cancer
- Other medical conditions: Acromegaly/Primary Biliary Cirrhosis
Symptoms of bowel cancer
- Blood in the stools (faeces)
- Abdominal pain/distention
- Changes in the bowel habits – Diarrhoea/Constipation
- Unexplained weight loss
- Unexplained Iron Deficiency Anaemia
These symptoms are very common and most of the people with these symptoms will not have bowel cancer. However, if you have any of these symptoms for longer than four to six weeks, it is advisable to contact your doctor to discuss if bowel investigations may be appropriate for you.