Bowel cancer treatment: reduce the risks

Bowel cancer (also known as colorectal cancer) is the second largest cause of cancer deaths in the UK. It's also one of the most difficult to talk about - but if diagnosed early it can be cured. Here's how you can reduce the risk of getting it.

This article on the prevention, symptoms and treatment of bowel cancer is written by Sarah Dawson, a freelance journalist who writes for national and international newspapers, magazines and websites.

For many of us, talking about anything to do with the bowels can be a very delicate matter. However, according to the Department of Health, bowel cancer affects more than one in 20 people, which is reason enough to overcome the embarrassment. The bowel is a long muscular tube that starts at the end of the stomach and extends all the way to the anus. Bowel Cancer (also known as colorectal cancer) is cancer of the colon or rectum, arising from the cells that line the bowel.

Most bowel cancers occur in the large intestine (the colon) with around 20 per cent occurring in the rectum. Cancer develops when one of the cells in the colon develops a series of changes - or mutations - in genes which control how the cell divides and survives. This causes the cell to split and form a clump of malignant (cancerous) cells. Bowel cancer affects men and women and is most common in people aged over 55, though younger people can still be at risk. In the UK, the NHS report bowel cancer to be the third most common cancer in men, and the second most common cancer in women.

There are various lifestyle factors which can make you more at risk of bowel cancer, for example, not getting any physical exercise and eating an unhealthy diet high in fat and low in vegetables. But people who have suffered with an inflammatory bowel disease like Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis, or who have had previous polyps removed are also considered high risk. Unfortunately, having a family history of bowel cancer also places you in the higher risk category, but the earlier the cancer is diagnosed the greater the chance of cure.

Prevention is better than cure

It's thought that 90 per cent of bowel cancer cases are due to dietary factors with the remaining 10 per cent being down to genetic/inherited factors so it goes without saying that paying good attention to what you eat and how you live your life is an essential form of preventative medicine. Studies indicate that people who eat lots of high-fibre foods have a low risk of bowel cancer.

This is because dietary fibre (roughage) helps bulk the motions and speeds the passage of waste through the digestive system. Vegetable fibre is believed to be more protective than cereal fibre so make sure you include green vegetables like cabbage, broccoli, brussel sprouts and cauliflower in your meals as these veggies have chemicals which are thought to be very protective against cancer.

Eating plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables helps the colon empty itself frequently and easily and the health department's "five a day" programme recommends five portions of fresh fruit and vegetables per day, whether fresh, frozen, canned or dried. One portion is a large piece of fruit, like an apple or banana, or three heaped tablespoons of vegetables, one glass of fruit or vegetable juice and beans and pulses (baked beans or lentils).

Avoid eating an excessive amount of calories to prevent becoming overweight. A diet low in animal and dairy fats will help reduce the risk of developing bowel cancer so quit the fry-up's, cut back on fat-drenched foods like chocolate, biscuits and cakes and reduce your alcohol intake. A high intake of red meat is also not advisable.

Drinking lots of fluids like herbal teas and water is recommended to lower your chances of bowel cancer because water assists the transit of waste products through the colon and keeps motions soft. Aim for two to three litres each day and minimise your Espressos, Cappucinos and teas as much as possible as caffeine ultimately has a negative effect on the body. Taking regular exercise to keep fit and healthy is important for good bowel health, and just 20 minutes of moderate daily exercise helps to ease the passage of waste through the system. Finally, learn to become familiar with your bowel habits so that you notice if/when any changes occur.

Bowel cancer symptoms

Many of the bowel cancer symptoms can also relate to other more common and minor conditions and according to Bowel Cancer UK most symptoms do not turn out to be bowel cancer and are often caused by some type of infection or piles. However, it is advisable to visit your GP if any of the following occur:

  • significant and persistent changes in bowel habits occur over a period of four to six weeks;
  • unexplained constipation/diarrhoea;
  • persistent rectal bleeding with no soreness;
  • pain, swelling or itching;
  • unexplained severe pain and/or lump in the abdomen;
  • blood or mucus in the stools; or
  • extreme tiredness for no obvious reason.

It's helpful to keep a note of your symptoms as and when they occur so keep a diary to take to your GP which you can hand over to him/her to eliminate any embarrassment of having to talk about/explain your symptoms. Some simple tests can be organised to screen for bowel cancer which detect blood and other clues in samples of faeces. Remember, there is a lot you can do to reduce the likelihood of bowel cancer and the chances of the cancer being successfully treated are higher if the condition is diagnosed in the early stages so don't put off talking about it. The NHS Bowel Cancer Screening Programme is available in many areas of the UK, offering bowel cancer screening every two years to all men and women aged between 60-69. For people who are over 70 years of age, a home screening kit is available.

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Bowel cancer treatment: reduce the risks
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