When you're in your twenties and thirties, colorectal cancer, otherwise known as bowel cancer, doesn't necessarily seem like a cause for concern. However, recent research suggests that bowel cancer rates are actually declining in people of 55 years or older and increasing amongst people aged 20 – 54.
With bowel cancer estimated to become the second most commonly diagnosed cancer in the future, it's worth clueing yourself up on the symptoms and what could put you at risk.
How does bowel cancer develop?
Bowel cancer usually develops as a result of cells in the lining of the bowel growing abnormally. Collections of these cells in the bowel are often called a polyp or an adenoma. Whilst polyps are usually benign, most bowel cancers develop from these growths.
What symptoms should I be looking out for?
Bowel cancer can develop with very few early warning symptoms so it's important to understand your level of risk and know the symptoms to look out for.
According to the Australian Department of Health, when symptoms do present they can include:
- Bleeding from the rectum or the presence of blood in your poo. Look out for both bright red and very dark blood as both could be a cause for concern.
- Recent and persistent changes to your usual bowel movements – do you need to go to the toilet more often? Are you unusually constipated or experiencing looser bowel movements on a regular basis?
- Unexplained tiredness or weight loss
- Abdominal pain or cramping.
If you experience any of these symptoms its best to go and seek advice from your doctor.
Ok, so what factors can put me at risk?
Whilst the most commonly reported factor is age, other lifestyle choices have been identified as putting people at risk of bowel cancer. Smoking and drinking too much alcohol can put you at risk along with getting too little exercise. Your risk is also increased if you're overweight or have a poor diet, high in red meats and fried foods.
Cutting back on the booze, quitting smoking and upping your intake of fresh veg and grains could all lower your risk. Getting on your feet is also a good idea, especially if your job requires you to sit at your desk for hours on end. Walking to work or squeezing in a lunchtime gym class could make all the difference.
Other bowel conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease also increase your risk of bowel cancer, along with a history of bowel polyps or adenomas, so if these apply to you it may be wise to speak to your doctor about regular screening.
I've got no family history of bowel cancer, do I need to worry?
Of course, if you have a strong family history of bowel cancer you should be extra vigilant and speak to your doctor about your risk of getting the disease and the testing that is right for you. However, over 80% of people who develop bowel cancer have no family history at all. So this isn't a reason to ignore symptoms or skip screenings.
So should I get tested?
With symptoms that can easily be attributed to haemorrhoids, food intolerances or just living a hectic lifestyle, it pays to be safe rather than sorry.
Whilst the prospect of a colonoscopy isn't a particularly pleasant one, if bowel cancer is detected at an early stage the chance of a full recovery is high.
I've booked in for a colonoscopy – what now?
Whilst a colonoscopy might sound daunting, it is a safe procedure and takes between 10 and 20 minutes to complete. Most people can go home a few hours later.
If polyps are discovered your doctor will usually remove these during the colonoscopy to test them for any abnormal cells.
About 4 in 10 people will have a clear colonoscopy result. For those who don’t, the good news is bowel cancer is one of the most curable types of cancer if found early.
You will usually require surgery in order to treat the cancer, however your doctor will be able to talk through all the options for treatment with you.
Want to know more about which health issues really affect you? Read about the main health issues impacting young Aussies here