April is Bowel Cancer Awareness Month. This is an annual event designed to increase awareness of bowel cancer and raise funds towards treating the condition. It is driven by various charitable organisations including Bowel Cancer UK, who aim to have no victim of Bowel Cancer by 2050.
Bowel cancer is the UK’s second biggest killer cancer. However, we know that it is possible to detect early signs at a stage when it could be fully curable. Tests to detect these signs are called “Screening”. Early diagnosis for bowel cancer saves lives, therefore screening is really important. This is the reason why April has been dedicated to raising awareness of bowel cancer symptoms and encouraging people to take up the screening that is offered to them.
What is bowel cancer and what are the symptoms?
Bowel cancer is a type of cancer that develops in the large bowel. Depending on where it starts, it can also be called colon (large intestine) cancer or rectal (lower part of large bowel) cancer. Most cases begin as small, benign (non-cancerous) clumps of cells, called polyps. Over time, some of these polyps can become cancerous. Bowel cancer is a common cancer and about 1 in 20 people will get it during their lifetime.
Many people with bowel cancer do not experience symptoms in the early stages of disease. When symptoms do appear, these can vary, but common signs and symptoms to look out for can include:
- Bleeding from your bottom or blood in your stool (always check after using the toilet)
- Changes in your bowel habits that last for more than 3 weeks (including diarrhoea or constipation)
- Abdominal pain/discomfort or a lump in your tummy
- Fatigue or weakness
- Unexplained weight loss
If you experience any of these symptoms you should speak to a doctor.
What are the causes and risk factors?
It isn’t exactly known what the cause of bowel cancer is in each case, however, there are factors which may increase the risk of developing it. These include:
- Age – most bowel cancer cases are in the over 50s
- Diet – there is a common link between low-fibre, high-fat diets and with high consumption of red meat and processed foods
- Weight – being overweight or obese can cause an increased risk
- Exercise – having an inactive, sedentary lifestyle is more likely to increase risk
- Alcohol and smoking – chances are increased for those who smoke or who have a high alcohol intake
- Family history – you’re more likely to develop bowel cancer if you have close family members with the disease
Other factors that can contribute are if you have a personal history of colorectal cancer or polyps, inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, or a genetically inherited syndrome that can increase the risk of bowel cancer.
How to prevent it?
There are many ways in which we can actively decrease our risk of developing bowel cancer. We could make lifestyle changes including quitting smoking and drinking only in moderation. Regular exercise, eating a variety of fruits, vegetables and whole-grains and maintaining a healthy weight are all changes that can be made in order to prevent developing bowel cancer.
Some people have an increased risk due to their genetics and some cancers can develop without any signs or symptoms. This is why screening saves lives! This can allow the cancer to be detected at an early stage, while it is easier to treat. By identifying and removing polyps, this will decrease the risk of them developing and turning cancerous.
What is screening?
Screening is the name we use for any test that can pick up a condition before it causes any illness. We use screening to detect evidence of a condition when there are no obvious signs or symptoms, with the aim of treating it at an early stage. This often makes it easier to treat with less invasive procedures and increases the chances of that treatment being a success.
If someone already has symptoms and undergoes an investigation for bowel cancer this is not called screening.
Depending on your risk and age group, there are different types of screening for bowel cancer. Those with average risk will be invited for screening from the age of 50. If you believe you have a higher risk (e.g. because of a family history of bowel cancer) you may wish to discuss screening at an earlier age.
Screening is offered to people in the age groups who we believe are the most at risk, with the aim of preventing the most cancer while making the most efficient use of NHS resources. This does not mean that people outside of those age groups will not get cancer, so if you are concerned about your risk you should speak with a doctor.
What bowel cancer screening tests are available?
There are 2 types of test used in NHS bowel cancer screening:
Bowel scope screening: a test where a thin, flexible tube with a camera at the end is used to look for any problems. During this test it may even be possible to remove any polyps inside your bowel, which can then be checked in the laboratory.
Home testing kit (the FOB test):a kit you use to collect small samples of your poo and post them to a laboratory so they can be checked for tiny amounts of blood (which could be caused by cancer).
If these tests find anything unusual, you might be asked to have further tests to confirm or rule out cancer.
The home testing kit is provided by the NHS for those aged 60 to 74 to detect early signs of cancer before symptoms are present. Anybody aged between 55 and 60 will be invited for a one-off bowel scope screening test.
Response rates for these screening tests are currently low at only 50%. This means half of the people considered to be most at risk of bowel cancer are not taking up the screening offered to them for free. If we can increase awareness of this important condition, we could raise this response rate and find more cancers at an early stage to save more lives.
People who have a personal or family history of bowel cancer may want to consider screening earlier than the recommended age.
If you have any concerns about your risks of bowel cancer speak with a doctor about the screening options open to you.
At Pinches Medical and Wellbeing we hosted an event on Tuesday 26thMarch to raise awareness of this important condition and encourage people to participate in screening.
It was a really informative evening with Mr Khan, a Consultant Specialist from the Spire Regency Hospital in Macclesfield, and Kelly Smith, who has been fighting stage 4 bowel cancer.
Mr Khan highlighted the many conditions which can affect the bowel, discussed symptoms and treatments, and outlined why our dietary choices can play a big part in digestive troubles.
Kelly Smith gave her very moving and inspirational story of living with bowel cancer. Kelly was first diagnosed two years ago, Mr Khan was her consultant surgeon and initially operated on Kelly. It is now Kelly’s passion to raise as much awareness as she possibly can and she helps newly diagnosed bowel cancer patients come to terms with their diagnosis.
Pinches Medical and Wellbeing are committed to supporting life-saving health promotion such as NHS screening programmes. To encourage people to take up the screening options available to them, for the entire month of April we will provide a free appointment for anyone who has concerns about bowel cancer screening to explain to them what is involved.
Knowing all the facts about the screening is key to giving people confidence to take up this important opportunity and can save lives. If you have any concerns about bowel cancer screening and wish to make an appointment please book for free with our reception team on 01625 704777.