It’s not fun to talk about, but if you have any concerns about your bowel health, going to the doctor is essential. We round up the facts you need to know.

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Bowel cancer is one of the most common and preventable cancers, yet it is still remains the second largest cause of cancer deaths in Australia. The problem is that many of us – somewhat understandably – are reluctant to talk to a doctor about symptoms related to bowel movements. A study by the University of Newcastle found that one in five adults with bowel cancer symptoms such as bleeding have not consulted a doctor.

Here are a few things you should know…

1. Bowel cancer usually develops from polyps.

Bowel cancer, also known as colorectal cancer, develops most commonly in the lining of the large bowel. Most bowel cancers develop from tiny growths called polyps, though not all polyps become cancerous. The cancer can narrow and block the bowel or cause bleeding. In advanced cases, the cancer may spread beyond the bowel to other organs.

Because of the risk of becoming cancerous, any polyps that are detected should be removed. In most cases this can be done without an operation, during a colonoscopy.

2. Your bowel cancer risk increases with age.

Australia has one of the highest rates of bowel cancer in the world. 1 in 12 Australians will develop bowel cancer in their lifetime, and both men and women are at risk. Your risk of bowel cancer increases if you:

  • Are aged 50 years and over
  • Have had an inflammatory bowel disease, such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis
  • Have previously had special types of polyps, called adenomas in the bowel; or
    have a significant family history of bowel cancer polyps (i.e. if a close relative developed bowel cancer while aged under 55, or if more than one relative on the same side of your family has had bowel cancer.)

3. Early symptoms of bowel cancer may be subtle.

In the early stages of bowel cancer you may not have any symptoms, or they may be dismissed as symptoms of other, unrelated conditions. Possible bowel cancer symptoms you should keep an eye on include:

  • A recent, persistent change in bowel habits (especially any bleeding)
  • Frequent gas pains, bloating, fullness or cramps
  • Persistent, severe abdominal pain
  • A lump or mass in your tummy
  • Weight loss for no known reason
  • Feeling very tired
  • Vomiting

4. Regular bowel cancer screening is recommended for people aged 50 and older.

Because bowel cancer can develop without noticeable symptoms, screening is important for detecting the disease early. Bowel Cancer Australia recommends screening for bowel cancer every 1 to 2 years for both men and women aged 50 and over. For people with no bowel cancer symptoms and no personal or family history of bowel cancer polyps, the Faecal Occult Blood Test (FOBT), which looks for hidden traces of blood, is a simple test that can be done at home.

People experiencing any signs of bowel cancer or who have a personal/family history should discuss appropriate screening options with their GP.

5. Lifestyle changes can help prevent bowel cancer.

Some things you can do to reduce your bowel cancer risk include:

  • Eat a well-balanced, high-fibre diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables.
  • Drink plenty of water.
  • Maintain a healthy body weight.
  • Try to get 30-60 minutes of exercise per day.
  • Avoid eating processed meat, and limit red meat intake to three to four times a week.
  • Limit alcohol.
  • Don't smoke.

6. Early detection increases your chance of successful treatment.

The good news in all this? If caught early, 90% of bowel cancer cases can be treated successfully, so it’s essential that you take any concerns about your bowel health seriously.

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