Over 40,000 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer every year in the UK.
The disease is the fourth most common cancer and the second most common cause of cancer death in the UK, despite figures from 2017 showing that deaths from the disease are declining.
Dr Julie Sharp, head of health information at Cancer Research UK, attributes the increasing survival rates to improved treatment of the disease over the years, as well as better screening (the NHS offers two types of bowel cancer screening to adults registered with a GP in England).
Raising awareness of the symptoms is also crucial in the fight against bowel cancer, as if the tumour is detected early enough, treatment can cure it and prevent it from coming back.
What is it?
Bowel cancer is commonly used to describe cancer in the bowel, however depending on where the cancer starts, it can be called other things - such as colon or rectal cancer.
“It starts as a small polyp, a little bit like a fleshy mole, in the lining of the bowel,” Dr Helen Webberley, a GP in the UK, told HuffPost UK.
“If these polyps are spotted early and are removed, the bowel cancer can’t develop. If these polyps go undetected then they eventually grow and turn cancerous, so the earlier any symptoms are detected the better.”
According to the NHS, most people diagnosed with the disease are over the age of 60. However that’s not to say that younger people don’t suffer from it too.
There are a number of possible factors which can increase a person’s risk of bowel cancer, these include: old age, a diet high in red or processed meats and low in fibre, being overweight or obese, not exercising enough, drinking alcohol and smoking, or having a family history of the disease.
There are a number of key signs to look out for. These include:
:: Changes in bowel habits - for example, going to the toilet more often or a change in the consistency and colour of your stools
:: A lump in your abdomen which doesn’t go away
:: Unexplained weight loss
:: Pain in the abdomen
:: Red or dark-coloured blood in your faeces
Unfortunately, some of these symptoms can be confused with other health problems - for example, piles or eating something that doesn’t agree with you.
If you experience any of the symptoms above, it’s important to speak to your GP.
Initially, a doctor will examine your stomach to check for any lumps in your abdomen. They will also perform a digital rectal examination (DRE) which helps them identify whether there are any lumps in the back passage.
Overall, the tests should take less than a minute.
The NHS also runs a number of bowel cancer-screening programmes and self-screening kits are available to buy from pharmacies.
“Further hospital tests include using medical instruments to check inside the colon or bowel,” added Dr Nitin Shori, NHS GP and medical director of the Pharmacy2U Online Doctor service.
Surgery is the most common treatment for bowel cancer.
According to Dr Shori, if the cancer is caught quickly enough, it can be possible to remove a small part of the colon.
“Patients often also require chemotherapy or radiotherapy,” he added.
If the cancer is detected early, treatment can cure bowel cancer and prevent it from coming back. Unfortunately, a complete cure isn’t always possible and there’s sometimes a risk that the cancer could recur at a later stage.