Following the devastating loss of Dame Deborah James this week, we asked Mr Colin Elton, Consultant Colorectal Surgeon at The Wellington Hospital, part of HCA Healthcare UK to give us the low-down on bowel cancer.
According to Cancer Research UK, bowel cancer is the fourth most common type of cancer in the UK, affecting around 42,900 people each year.
What are the symptoms of bowel cancer?
Symptoms will differ from person to person, but the most common symptoms are:
- Bleeding – either from your rectum or in your stool
- A persistent change in bowel habit lasting three weeks or longer
- Unexplained weight loss
- Pain or cramping
- Extreme fatigue
- A noticeable lump in your stomach
Is this type of cancer common?
Though bowel cancer is most commonly found in those aged 50 or above, it can – like all types of cancer – affect anyone of any age. It is important to not rule any concerns you may have out due to being younger than 50.
How can I screen myself?
Screening is available to anyone over the age of 50 here in the UK with a free NHS home testing kit. This is sent out every two years, and it checks for tiny amounts of blood in your stool which can be an indicator of polyps or bowel cancer.
Polyps are small growths that are found on the inner lining of the colon or rectum. They are very common, affecting 1 in 4 people aged 50 and above, and are more often found in men.
Most people do not know that they have them, and they usually do not cause any issues. However, a certain type of polyps, called adenomas, can become cancerous. This is what doctors believe cause most bowel cancers. If polyps are found, they will always be removed to minimise risk of cancer.
What are the causes of bowel cancer?
Aside from polyps, the causes remain relatively unknown. Having a family history of bowel cancer in a first degree relative (immediate biological family) can increase your risk. Additionally, smoking, excessive alcohol intake, a diet that is high in red meat and processed meat, and obesity can all increase your risk of bowel cancer.
How can I reduce my risk?
There are things that you can do to help reduce your risk. Evidence suggests that a balanced healthy diet, particularly one that is high in fibre, can reduce the risk. As people who lead a physically inactive lifestyle have a higher chance of developing bowel cancer, taking up regular exercise as walking, running, swimming, or cycling are great ways to reduce this risk.
There are some very effective treatments for bowel cancer available in the UK, depending on when you are diagnosed and what stage the cancer is at. We primarily treat bowel cancer with surgery, chemotherapy, or radiotherapy. Where appropriate, keyhole surgery is preferable as it is minimally invasive with a much faster recovery time.
Getting the support you need
There is a huge support system here in the UK for anyone going through bowel cancer. Bowel Cancer UK, Bowel Research UK, Cancer Research UK and Macmillan Cancer Support are all brilliant resources for anyone living with the effects of bowel cancer.
Positively, there is now more awareness of bowel cancer than ever before, which means that people are more likely to know the symptoms to look for. People are being diagnosed sooner and receiving better prognoses as a result. In addition to the usual treatments, immunotherapy is becoming more popular and beneficial in treating bowel cancer. This involves using your own body’s immune system to fight the cancerous cells. If caught in its localised stage, bowel cancer has a survival rate of 91%, so make sure you know the symptoms and crucially, speak to your GP if you experience any of the aforementioned symptoms for two weeks or more.
Article by Mr Colin Elton, Consultant Colorectal Surgeon at The Wellington Hospital, part of HCA Healthcare UK