Written by Meghan Betts
Bowel (or colorectal) cancer is the second most common cancer in Australians and is particularly prevalent in those over 50 years of age.
Symptoms of bowel cancer include a change in bowel habits, thin bowel movements, blood in the stools, abdominal or rectal pain, fatigue or weight loss. It is estimated that 16,682 new cases of bowel cancer will be diagnosed in Australia in 2017, accounting for 12.4% of all newly diagnosed cancer cases in Australia.
Men v/s women
Incorrectly, many people believe that bowel cancer primarily affects men. It is also the second most common cancer amongst women, second only to breast cancer. A survey of 787 people by the Cancer Institute NSW found that whilst 69% of respondents recognised that bowel cancer commonly affects men, only 37% knew of its prevalence among women.
How does bowel cancer occur?
Bowel cancer develops from the inner lining of the bowel and is usually preceded by growths on the inner lining of the bowel that often protrude into the intestinal lumen. These growths are known as polyps and are caused by genetic changes or mutations. Although fairly common, polyps can become malignant (cancerous) and need to be monitored in order to recognise the signs that cancer may be developing.
There are various other factors that increase your risk of developing bowel cancer including a genetic vulnerability, inflammatory bowel disease (such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis), being overweight or obese and environmental factors including high alcohol consumption, high red meat consumption (particularly processed meat) and smoking. By eating a healthy diet with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, maintaining a healthy body weight and not smoking the risk of developing bowel cancer can be reduced.
According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, not only is bowel cancer the second most common form of cancer, it is also the second biggest killer after lung cancer. It is estimated that there will be 4,114 bowel cancer deaths in 2017, up from 4,071 deaths in 2014. Currently, the five-year survival rate for Australians diagnosed with bowel cancer is 69%. Bowel cancer can be treated when diagnosed early, and the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program currently provides free screening kits that can be done at home for people over the age of 50. However, despite its importance, only 34.5% of those eligible for screening in NSW actually have completed these tests.
So why aren’t more people screening themselves?
One of the biggest problems is the issue of stigma, with bowel cancer being seen as ‘dirty or embarrassing’, a view which is decreasing the rate of screening uptake. Although most people realise that early detection and diagnosis is essential in treating diseases such as bowel cancer, many are embarrassed to seek information and advice, or report concerns to their doctor. This embarrassment and stigma is costing lives and needs to be tackled to make people aware of the importance of screening to minimise their risk of bowel cancer.