Bowel cancer: 5 facts every man should know

Bowel symptoms aren't a fun topic of conversation – but knowing the facts could save your life.

Written by Graham Newstead AM
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Did you know that bowel cancer is the second biggest cancer killer of Australian men, and yet it remains one of the least discussed?

Associate Professor Graham Newstead, AM, colorectal surgeon and director of Bowel Cancer Australia, breaks down the essential facts every man needs to know.

Bowel cancer in Australian men

Over 2,300 Australian men die from bowel cancer every year – more than twice the national road toll for men. While it most commonly affects adults aged 50 and over, new information reveals bowel cancer is increasingly affecting younger Australians. Of the more than 8,000 Australian men diagnosed with bowel cancer each year, around 7% (560) of them are under the age of 50.

90% of bowel cancer cases can be successfully treated if detected early. So keep reading – the following facts could save your life.

1. What is bowel cancer?

Bowel cancer, also known as colorectal cancer, is cancer in any part of the colon or rectum. Most bowel cancers develop from tiny growths known as polyps. Over time, some polyps can become cancerous and narrow or block the bowel or cause bleeding. In advanced cases, the cancer can spread to other parts of the body, often affecting the liver or lungs.

2. What is my risk?

Hereditary conditions such as Lynch Syndrome (HNPCC) and Familial Adenomatous Polyposis (FAP), family history and personal health history can all influence bowel cancer risk. As these factors cannot be changed, they are referred to as non-modifiable risk factors. If you have any of these risks, it is important to discuss them and develop a plan with your GP in order to detect bowel cancer early if it develops.

Advancing age is another non-modifiable risk factor. For men who do not have any bowel cancer symptoms, medical guidelines recommend screening using a faecal test (FIT) every 1 to 2 years from age 50.

“While certain risk factors cannot be changed, there are other diet and lifestyle choices that can assist in reducing your bowel cancer risk.”

3. What are the symptoms?

It is vitally important to recognise possible signs of bowel cancer and have them investigated if they persist. Not everyone experiences symptoms, but the following are a few to look out for:

• A persistent change in bowel habit, especially going to the toilet more often or having looser, more diarrhoea-like movements for several weeks.

• Blood in the bowel movement or rectal bleeding.

• A change in appearance of bowel movements.

• Abdominal pain, especially if severe.

• Unexplained anaemia causing tiredness or weight loss.

• A lump or swelling in your abdomen.

These symptoms can also be due to other medical conditions, some foods or medicines. However, if you are experiencing any of the above, see your GP immediately. Symptoms suggestive of bowel cancer require further investigation via colonoscopy within 30 days.

4. What can I do to reduce my risk?

In addition to the importance of screening and surveillance, certain diet and lifestyle choices can reduce your bowel cancer risk. While certain risk factors cannot be changed, there are some diet and lifestyle choices that can assist in reducing your bowel cancer risk.

• Quit smoking.

• Avoid processed meats and limit red meat consumption.

• Avoid weight gain and/or increases in waist circumference.

• If you drink alcohol, limit the amount.

• Eat naturally high-fibre foods.

• Be physically active as part of your everyday life.

• Participate in bowel cancer screening.

• If you carry an increased risk, speak to your GP about ongoing monitoring.

5. What can I do to raise awareness about bowel cancer?

Bowel Cancer Australia is asking Aussie men to grow a beard this December to raise funds and help save lives. Decembeard Australia (1st-31st December) is a hair-raising fundraiser designed to engage Australian men in conversation about bowel cancer and is open to anyone.

Find out more at Bowel Cancer Australia.

Written by Graham Newstead AM

Associate Professor Graham Newstead is Head of the Colorectal Unit at the Prince of Wales Private Hospital. He is Chairman of the International Council of Coloproctology, the Bowel Cancer Foundation within Bowel Cancer Australia and the Medical Advisory Council of the Prince of Wales Private Hospital. He was awarded a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in 2005 for service to medicine in the field of colorectal surgery.

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