Bowel cancer - Raising awareness saves lives

10 April 2015

As April is bowel cancer awareness month, consultant general surgeon Mr Kevin Sargen offers advice to raise awareness of the symptoms of bowel cancer and how being diagnosed early may just save your life.

More than 40,000 men and women are diagnosed with bowel cancer in the UK every year, that’s someone diagnosed every 15 minutes. Bowel cancer is the fourth most diagnosed cancer in the UK but the second most common cause of cancer death.

Mr Kevin Sargen, consultant general surgeon at Spire Norwich Hospital, explains:

What is the bowel?

The bowel – also known as the large intestine – is part of the digestive system. It soaks up water from the food and drink we consume and turns it into waste. The bowel measures about 1.5m long, is 6.5cm wide and contains a hundred trillion bacteria.

What are the risks of bowel cancer?

Most of the population have bowel symptoms at some point during their life, but thankfully most will not get bowel cancer.  It occurs more commonly as age progresses; indeed over 90% of bowel cancer occurs in those aged over 50. A family history of bowel cancer does increase the risk, but this is usually significant only when the cancer has occurred in a family member at a younger age, or if more than one close relative has been affected.

What common symptoms should we look out for?

Rectal bleeding - Many of us will get this at some point, but it is more significant if it is a new symptom, is more than just seeing a smear of blood on the toilet paper, or if there are no other symptoms such as itching and soreness around the bottom.

Change in bowel habit - We all get episodes of looseness and increased frequency, true diarrhoea and constipation. However, a persistent change should be investigated. The majority of people with this symptom have no serious bowel disease, many have Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).

Anaemia - This is when individuals have a low blood count. It can result in a pale complexion, weakness and tiredness, and in severe cases, shortness of breath. The cause can be the constant unnoticed blood loss from the bowel.

Abdominal pain - An uncommon symptom of serious bowel disease. However, some patients with bowel cancer may have persistent abdominal pain.

Are there any other common bowel problems to be aware of?

Anal verge bleeding - The occurrence of small amounts of fresh blood, commonly associated with a slightly sore bottom and / or straining to go to the toilet. Many of us will get this periodically throughout adult life. If this is a new symptom, it is important to be sure nothing more serious is occurring and your doctor will be able to help.

Piles and haemorrhoids - The result of tissue containing blood vessels inside the anus becoming prominent. These can protrude from the bottom, cause fresh bleeding, discomfort and itching. Often no treatment is needed and readily available creams and ointments can help. Severe cases can be treated at a hospital clinic, but very few people with piles have symptoms bad enough to justify an operation.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) - In older patients, it is only safe to make this diagnosis after serious causes have been excluded. Generally however, symptoms of abdominal discomfort and erratic bowel habits, often related to particular foodstuffs or periods of anxiety, tend to come and go.

Diverticular disease - This is extremely common, therefore shouldn’t really be labelled a disease. Pouches form in the bowel wall, and in most of us it causes no problem. Some patients experience discomfort and bowel problems, but rarely does it get seriously infected and necessitate surgery. Often, it only comes to light when patients are investigated for a change in bowel habit, to exclude a more serious disease.

Bowel cancer and bowel polyps - Bowel cancer often develops from bowel polyps (an abnormal growth of tissue). If these are discovered at an early stage it is usually possible to remove themendoscopically (through a telescope). In general, the earlier cancers are diagnosed the greater the likelihood of treatment being curative. This is the rationale for the national bowel cancer screening project which is currently operational in England. Individuals aged 55 are offered a ‘one-off’ telescopic examination of their left colon (flexible sigmoidoscopy) reducing the incidence and mortality from left sided bowel cancer, which accounts for 75% of all colorectal cancer. Those aged between 60 and 75 are invited (by post), to test their faeces with a special kit, for traces of blood. Those who test positive will be offered a bowel telescope test (colonoscopy) to investigate further.

For anyone unfortunate enough to be diagnosed with bowel cancer, treatment can often be successful. Indeed at least half of those diagnosed are ultimately cured.

For further information or to make a private appointment with Mr KevinSargen or one of his colleagues Mr Richard Wharton, Mr Sandeep Kapur or Mr William Stebbings please contact one of the team on 01603 255 614 or complete the enquiry form on the right hand side of this page.

All surgery carries an element of risk and the content of this page is provided for general information only.  It should not be treated as a substitute for the professional medical advice of your doctor or other healthcare professional.

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