Health Check

Bowel cancer: risks, symptoms, diagnosis and treatment

Get to know the signs and symptoms of bowel cancer, how it’s diagnosed, and what treatments are available

Written by Medibank
Bowel cancer is more common in people over the age of 50, but it can happen in younger people.

Did you know that bowel cancer is the second most common cancer in Australia? Bowel cancer, which can also be referred to as colorectal cancer, develops from the inner lining of the bowel and is often preceded by growths called polyps, which may become cancerous if undetected. People aged 50+ are most at risk, however it increasingly affects all age groups.

What are the symptoms of bowel cancer?

Make an appointment to see your GP if you experience any of the following symptoms:

  • Changes in your bowel habits 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.

Who is most at risk of getting bowel cancer?

The following factors increase the risk of developing bowel cancer:

  • 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.

Diet and lifestyle factors may also 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.

Bowel cancer screening

90% of bowel cancer is curable if found early, and screening is one of the most effective ways to prevent bowel cancer from developing. Screening involves a simple, non-invasive test that can be taken in the comfort of your own home.

If you are aged 50 or over, have a chat with your GP about the screening test. The Australian Government currently offers free faecal occult blood test (FOBT) kits to people turning 50, 52, 54, 56, 58, 60, 62, 64, 66, 68, 70, 72 and 74, and it is recommended that the test is taken every 1-2 years. To be eligible for a free test, you need to have a Medicare card or a Veteran Affairs card.

It’s important to note that this test is for low-risk people only, who display no symptoms of bowel cancer. If you have a personal or family history of bowel cancer, or display one or more of the symptoms listed above, you may need more regular screening or a colonoscopy, and your GP can guide you on this.

Diagnosing bowel cancer

A handful of physical tests can be used to diagnose bowel cancer. These may include:

Treatment for bowel cancer

Staging, which involves determining if and how far the cancer has spread, helps a doctor to work out the best treatment for their patient. If you are diagnosed with bowel cancer, it’s important to ask your doctor to explain the stage of your cancer to help determine the best treatment for you.

Treatment for bowel cancer may include:

  • Surgery to remove the cancer within 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 the symptoms of cancer.

Do you have more questions?

If you have been diagnosed with bowel cancer and have questions or concerns about your diagnosis or treatment plan, your doctor and healthcare team can provide further guidance and support that is unique to you.

Medibank members with hospital cover can also call our 24/7 Medibank Nurse with any health question, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Cancer Council Australia

Better Health Channel

Bowel Cancer Australia

Written by Medibank

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