Beating bowel cancer

Not only is your GP completely used to people telling them about problems with their bowels, they're positively pleased they have. And that's because the more people who come forward, the better our chances of beating bowel cancer.

A recent publicity campaign by the charity Bowel Cancer UK urged us 'Don't die of embarrassment' - and they meant it literally. April is Bowel Cancer Awareness month, and Bowel Cancer UK are determined we don't forget how much there is to be gained from knowing the signs to spot.

Never a day goes by in my surgery when I don't get at least one patient mumbling in a sheepish way about blood from their bottom. Sometimes they've waited days before they pluck up courage to make an appointment. Often they seem terrified that I'm going to look disgusted - but nothing could be further from the truth. Not only is your GP completely used to people telling them about problems with their bowels, they're positively pleased they have. And that's because the more people who come forward, the better our chances of beating bowel cancer.

The earlier you're diagnosed with bowel cancer, the sooner you get treatment. And the sooner you get treatment, the greater the chance that your cancer will be at an early stage, where it hasn't spread. To put this into perspective, people diagnosed at the earliest stage (stage A) have a greater than 90% chance of beating the disease. What price a little embarrassment when the stakes are so high?

Who's at risk?

Anyone can get bowel cancer, although it does get more common as you get older. But if bowel cancer runs in your family, you could be at higher risk so speak to your GP - they may recommend regular screening.

The symptoms you need to know

  • Symptoms you need to get checked out include:
  • Bleeding from your back passage, especially if it's dark (rather than bright red) blood, and the blood is mixed in with your stool (rather than on the paper or the toilet pan)
  • A change in your usual bowel habit, especially if you're passing more frequent or looser motions
  • A feeling of not emptying your bowel completely when you go to the toilet
  • Persistent tummy pain, being off your food or losing weight for no reason.

Your GP can usually reassure you there's nothing to worry about, but it's MUCH better to be safe than sorry!

How can I reduce my risk?

Eating plenty of fruit and vegetables can cut your risk of colon cancer, as well as protecting you from heart attack and stroke. Fruit and veg are high in fibre, which protects against colon cancer, constipation, piles and diverticular disease. It may even cut your risk of type 2 diabetes. Other sources of fibre in your diet include wholemeal/wholegrain foods and oats. Taking regular exercise lowers your risk - it's estimated that one in 20 bowel cancers in the UK are linked to people doing less than 30 minutes of exercise, five times a week. Limiting your intake of alcohol, processed and red meat and keeping your weight down will also protect you.

Aspirin - should I or shouldn't I?

Taking a regular 'baby aspirin' (75 mg) tablet a day may cut your risk of colon cancer. Recent studies suggest that taking this dose daily for 10 years between the age of 50 and 65 could reduce your risk by a third. If you've had a heart attack or stroke, you should definitely be taking this anyway unless there's a medical reason you shouldn't. However, aspirin does carry a risk of bleeding from the stomach, so for some people the risks might outweigh the benefits. Speak to your doctor before you start on a regular dose.

The envelope through your door you should never ignore

A simple test could save your life - all you need to do is put it in the postbox. Every two years from the age of 60-74 (in England and Wales), 60-71 (in Northern Ireland) or 50-74 (in Scotland) you'll receive a letter with a 'faecal occult blood' (FOB) test kit. This checks for invisible traces of blood in your faeces. You just use the scraper in the kit to take a tiny sample of three different bowel motions from your toilet paper. You wipe it gently on to the card provided, seal it in the prepaid envelope and return it. Most people have a normal result - people with a positive test are called back for further tests, but most of these are later given the all clear. Even if it's positive, getting early treatment improves your chance of cure greatly - it's estimated that 2,500 people a year could be saved with this test.

With thanks to 'My Weekly' magazine where this article was originally published.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.