Grant J Everett
Bowel cancer is Australia’s second deadliest cancer. Sadly, it claims the lives of around 103 Australians every week (around 5,375 people a year), but if discovered early it’s one of the most treatable cancers, making early screening essential. A staggering 1 in 13 Australians will be diagnosed with bowel cancer in their lifetime, with around 15,604 diagnosed this year alone. And while the risk of bowel cancer increases significantly with age, it doesn’t discriminate: it affects both men and women, young and old.
Australia has one of the highest rates of bowel cancer in the world, but there is a lot we can do to reduce our risks of developing it and increasing our chances of beating it if it does make an appearance. Certain lifestyle factors are vital in reducing your risks of developing bowel cancer, such as…
- Eating a healthy high-fibre diet that’s low in saturated fats
- Engaging in regular physical activity for at least 30 minutes a day, five days a week
- Reducing your consumption of red and processed meat
- Not smoking
- Maintain a healthy body weight (obesity is linked to bowel cancer, especially in men)
- Drink alcohol only in moderation
Other factors that increase your risk of bowel cancer include inflammatory bowel disease and anal polyps. You should also know your family history, as heredity plays a big role.
Things to watch for
If you experience one or more of the following symptoms, you may want to consult your GP. They can tell you whether these are the hallmarks of anything more serious, or just too many beans in your taco.
A change in toilet habits, such as diarrhoea, constipation, or feeling “unfinished” after going
- Blood in your stool
- Abdominal pain, bloating or cramping
- Bottom pain
- A lump inside or on your anus
- Weight loss
- Unexplained anaemia
Getting screened every year or two can reduce your risks of dying from bowel cancer by up to 33%. If detected early, up to 90% of bowel cancer cases can be successfully treated. This is why eligible Australians aged between 50-74 are sent a free bowel cancer screening kit every couple of years. This involves a simple, non-invasive test that can be done at home.
Bowel cancer develops on the inner lining of the bowel, and is usually preceded by growths called polyps. These growths can become cancerous if left unchecked, which is why the best test for bowel cancer is a colonoscopy. This physically examines the bowel with a flexible tube. In addition to being equipped with a light, a camera, and a water jet, the tube also has tools for snipping polyps for further examination.
Treating bowel cancer
If you have been diagnosed with bowel cancer, the core takeaway message is that it is treatable and beatable if detected early. Treatment is highly dependent on the type and stage of the cancer, your age, your general health, and other factors. Radiotherapy, chemotherapy and surgery are all common options, though your treating Doctor is best equipped to discuss your treatment details. You will also receive help from a team of specialist staff who will help you to manage all the areas of your life that a cancer diagnosis will affect, medical or otherwise.
For further information call 1800 118 868 or visit cancerscreening.gov.au
Understanding Bowel Cancer, Cancer Council Australia © 2019. Last medical review of this booklet: February 2019.
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. ACIM (Australian Cancer Incidence and Mortality) Books. Canberra: AIHW.