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Six ways to reduce your risk of bowel cancer

It's the second bigger cancer killer across the continent, but there are plenty of things you can do to reduce your risk of bowel cancer. Gastroenterologist Dr Monique van Leerdam shares her advice.

Bowel cancer, or colorectal cancer, is currently one of the most prevalent and deadly cancers in Europe. Despite its status as the second biggest cancer killer across the continent, there is still a noticeable lack of public knowledge surrounding the disease. Our increasingly sedentary lifestyles, coupled with a sharp rise in the quantity and availability of processed foods, mean that actively adopting a healthy lifestyle is more important than ever in the fight against bowel cancer.

Although the precise cause of bowel cancer is still unknown, studies have demonstrated that a number of lifestyle factors are linked to the development of the disease. Adapting your lifestyle as early as possible could be key to reducing your risk.

Adapting your diet

Red and processed meat has been a hot topic in health for the past couple of years. Our consumption of meat has increased rapidly over the past fifty years and often exceeds basic nutritional benefits. Coinciding with this, a large body of evidence has suggested that the long-term consumption of red and particularly processed meat (hams, salamis, sausages, etc) may increase your risk of bowel cancer.

It is not essential to remove red meat from your diet completely. Red meat is a good source of protein and iron and can help form a balanced diet. The main message is moderation, with guidelines suggesting that we reduce our red or processed meat consumption to a maximum 70 g a day.

Dietary fibre, a term used for plant-based carbohydrates, provides a variety of health benefits, including a well-functioning digestive system. Recent evidence also suggests that dietary fibre could assist in bowel cancer prevention. Choosing high-fibre breakfast cereals and adding pulses to your meals are simple lifestyle changes that could reduce your risk.

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Physical activity

Alongside changes in your diet, physical activity can help reduce the risk of bowel cancer. With over half of the European population considered overweight or obese, obesity is beginning to overtake tobacco as a leading risk factor for preventable cancers. Evidence has demonstrated that obesity can potentially double the risk of bowel cancer, highlighting the need for exercise to act as an effective cancer prevention strategy.

Current recommendations suggest that we should do at least 150 minutes of exercise per week, which will not only help stem the formation of bowel cancer, but will produce countless other health benefits.

Reducing your alcohol intake

According to a United European Gastroenterology (UEG) report, excessive alcohol consumption may be the culprit behind a wide range of digestive cancers. In particular, the study revealed that there is an increased risk of 21% in those who consume between one and four alcoholic drinks per day and as much as a 52% increased risk in those who consume more than four drinks per day.

Reducing your alcohol intake is one of the most vital steps you can take to invest in your long-term health. To reduce the health risks associated with alcohol, both men and women should drink no more than 14 units of alcohol a week.

Vitamin D and calcium

Whilst traditionally known for their beneficial impacts on bone health, evidence has demonstrated how calcium and vitamin D can potentially lessen the incidence of bowel cancer. In one study, people who had vitamin D levels below the current guidelines had a 31% increased risk of bowel cancer. In comparison, those with a vitamin D intake above the recommended levels had a 22% reduced risk.

The most effective way to increase your intake of vitamin D and calcium is to integrate them into your diet through foods such as fatty fish and a variety of dairy products.

Not smoking

The dangers of cigarette smoking have been proved without a vestige of doubt for all of the 21st and much of the 20th century. A common factor behind many cancers, cigarette smoking is also a long-established risk factor for bowel cancer. Meta-analyses have shown that bowel cancer risk is 17-25% higher in former cigarette smokers compared with never smokers.

With European bowel cancer rates in young adults increasing by 6% per year, bowel cancer risk is also higher in people who start smoking younger, contributing to this concerning upward trend.

Bowel cancer screening

Although changes in your lifestyle are integral measures in the fight against bowel cancer, one of the most effective steps you can take is to take part in bowel cancer screening programmes.

Caught early, bowel cancer is a very treatable disease, leading to a 90-95% survival rate. If premalignant lesions are detected, cancer can even be prevented. The NHS currently offers a home testing kit for people over 60, which is a simple and effective testing method to detect possible indications of bowel cancer.

Dr Monique van Leerdam is a member of the European Gastroenterology (UEG) Public Affairs Committee.

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