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Bowel cancer: risks, symptoms, diagnosis and treatment

Learn more about bowel cancer

Bowel cancer

Bowel cancer is also known as colorectal cancer. It develops from the inner lining of the bowel and is often preceded by growths called polyps, which may become invasive cancer if undetected. Bowel cancer is the second most common cancer in both men and women in Australia. It is more common in people over the age of 50, but it can happen in younger people.

Who is most at risk of getting bowel cancer?

There are some things that you can’t change that may increase your risk of getting bowel cancer. These include:

  • Inheriting one of two uncommon genetic disorders–familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) or Lynch syndrome
  • A personal or strong family history of bowel cancer
  • inflammatory bowel disease
  • polyps.

There are also some diet and lifestyle factors that may increase your risk of bowel cancer. These include eating a lot of red and processed meats, drinking too much alcohol, smoking and being overweight or obese.

What are the symptoms of bowel cancer?

According to the Cancer Council Australia, symptoms of bowel cancer include:

  • change in bowel habit with diarrhoea, constipation or the feeling of incomplete emptying
  • thin bowel movements
  • blood in the stools
  • abdominal pain, bloating or cramping
  • anal or rectal pain
  • a lump in the anus or rectum
  • weight loss
  • fatigue
  • unexplained anaemia.

If you have any questions or concerns about any symptoms you may have, talk to your GP.

Bowel cancer screening

Ninety per cent of bowel cancer is curable if it is found early, before it has had a chance to spread. And screening is one of the most effective ways to prevent bowel cancer developing.

The screening test for bowel cancer is simple, non-invasive test called the faecal occult blood test (FOBT) that can be done at home.

If you are aged 50 and over, you should chat with their GP about the screening tests, so that any signs of bowel cancer can be picked up early. The Cancer Council recommends doing a screening test every two years. The Australian Government currently offers free FOBT kits to people turning 50, 55, 60, 65, 70 and 74. To be eligible for a free test, you need to have a Medicare card or a Veteran Affairs card.

Be aware that this test is only for low-risk people with no symptoms of bowel cancer.  If you have a family history of bowel cancer you may need screening colonoscopies.

Diagnosing bowel cancer

A number of tests can be used to diagnose bowel cancer. These might include:

Treatment for bowel cancer

Staging, which involves determining if and how far the cancer has spread, helps your doctors to work out the best treatment for you. It’s important to ask your doctor to explain the stage of your cancer in a way you can understand – this will help you to choose the best treatment for you.

Treatment for bowel cancer might include:

  • Surgery to remove the bowel and surrounding lymph nodes is the most common treatment for bowel cancer.
  • Chemotherapy or radiotherapy. These treatments are commonly used in addition to surgery, especially if the cancer is more widespread.

In some cases, your doctor may talk to you about palliative care. As well as slowing the spread of cancer, palliative treatment can relieve pain and help manage other symptoms.

Do you have more questions?

If you have been diagnosed with cancer and have questions about your diagnoses or treatment plan, talk to your doctor and healthcare team and ask them to explain anything you don’t understand.

Medibank members with hospital cover can also call a nurse with any health question, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. To speak to a Medibank Nurse call 1800 644 325.

Cancer Council Australia http://www.cancer.org.au/about-cancer/types-of-cancer/bowel-cancer/

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