We need to talk about bowel cancer. It’s Australia’s second biggest cancer killer. Around 15,000 Aussies are diagnosed every year, including 1,115 people under the age of 50. For young people it can take a long time to be picked up, with symptoms often being mistaken for IBS or digestive issues.
That’s not to alarm you, but read up on the symptoms. Because right now, it does not have a good survival rate, it’s 5 years and around 66%, which lags way behind other common cancers.
The good news is that the more prevention and signs and symptoms are discussed, the more we’re likely to notice when something is amiss. It starts by reading – and sharing – this list.
The top 5 questions asked on the bowel cancer helpline
Tammy Farrell, bowel care nurse at Bowel Cancer Australia has the answers
1. I’m experiencing symptoms listed on your website. What should I do?
ANSWER: First, don’t panic. If you’ve noticed one or more of these symptoms for two weeks, go and see your GP. You know your body better than anyone, so if something doesn’t feel right, regardless of your age or gender, go and ask your doctor to investigate. It’s important to rule out cancer as quickly as possible since early detection is vital. Common symptoms can be: blood in the bowel movement, recent and persistent change in bowel habit, frequent gas pain or cramps, abdominal pain or swelling or a feeling that the bowel has not emptied completely.
2. What is a stoma and will I need one?
ANSWER: A stoma is when the surgeon creates an artificial opening on the wall of the abdomen to collect waste. Sometimes, bowel cancer patients undergoing surgery may need a temporary or permanent stoma depending on where the tumour is. Patients are often fearful of if they need to ‘wear a bag’. But thanks to surgical advances over the last 10 years, most patients will only have a temporary stoma while healing from the initial surgery. But even if someone requires a permanent stoma, it’s entirely possible to live with a bag and live a good life.
3. What is bowel cancer screening?
ANSWER It’s a test for people who don’t have any obvious bowel cancer symptoms, which can detect very small amounts of blood, invisible to the naked eye, which may be leaking from a cancerous growth or polyp on the inside wall of the bowel. The test looks for blood in your bowel movement, but not for bowel cancer itself. Screening using a faecal immunochemical test is one of the most effective ways to reduce the risk of bowel cancer as it can help detect pre-cancerous polyps for removal during colonoscopy or cancer in its earliest stages, when it’s easier to treat successfully.
4. Does having Crohn's disease increase my risk for bowel cancer?
ANSWER Yes. People with Crohn’s, (and ulcerative colitis, especially if it’s extensive) do have an increased risk of developing bowel cancer and should be monitored regularly. Although Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis and bowel cancer are all different conditions, the symptoms are similar. People with Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis are usually advised to have a colonoscopy every few years.
5. Can a particular diet reduce the risk of bowel cancer?
There is evidence that foods high in fibre, particularly plant-based foods such as leafy vegetables have been shown to protect against the disease. Conversely, studies also show that processed meat can increase bowel cancer risk. About 50 grams of processed meat, such as sausages, prosciutto or salami, may lead to an 18 per cent increased risk of bowel cancer. There is also emerging evidence that obesity and type 2 diabetes are contributing to bowel cancer risk. So, eating a diet that is low in saturated fat, processed foods and unhealthy snacks, alongside regular exercise, is one of the best ways to slash your risk.
June is Bowel Cancer Awareness Month – Get Behind It! Visit bowelcanceraustralia.org or call 1800 555 494 to find out how you can get involved or donate.