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 remains the second largest cause of cancer deaths in Australia, and the rate of bowel cancer cases across the country is rising.

The problem is that many of us – somewhat understandably – are reluctant to talk to a doctor about symptoms related to bowel movements, so here are a few facts that 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. Around 1 in 23 Australians will develop bowel cancer in their lifetime, and both men and women are at risk. Whilst bowel cancer is more common in people from age 50, it increasingly affects all age groups, and you should never be told that you are too young to have bowel cancer. Your risk of bowel cancer increases if you:

  • Are aged 50+
  • 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.
  • 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 signs or symptoms, or they may be dismissed as symptoms of other, unrelated conditions. Possible bowel cancer symptoms you should keep an eye on include:

  • Blood or mucus in the faeces or on the toilet paper.
  • An unexpected change in bowel habit (for example, diarrhoea or constipation for no obvious reason).
  • General discomfort in the abdomen (feelings of bloating, fullness, pain, cramps).
  • Constant tiredness.
  • Weakness and paleness.

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 Immunochemical test (FIT) test, which looks for hidden traces of blood, is a simple test that can be done in the privacy of your own home.

The National Bowel Cancer Screening Program (NBCSP) was rolled out by the Australian Government in 2007 to reduce illness and death from bowel cancer through early detection or prevention of the disease. The program currently offers free bowel cancer screening to eligible Australians turning 50, 54, 55, 58, 60, 64, 68, 70, 72 and 74 years of age, and participants are sent a free, clean, easy-to-use test kit direct to their home. It’s important to complete the test when it lands in your letterbox - it could save your life.

If you have a family history of bowel cancer or have previously had a bowel condition such as Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, or polyps, more regular screenings may be required and your GP can guide you on this.

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.

For more information visit bowelcanceraustralia.org

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