Know the signs of bowel cancer

Posted on: 26 April 2012 by Gareth Hargreaves

Bowel Cancer Awareness month may be drawing to a close but your own awareness should now span the whole year.

bowel cancerBowel cancer is a lump created by an abnormal and uncontrolled growth of cells that start in the bowel. It is the third most common cancer in the UK. About five in 100 people will develop bowel cancer in the UK. Of these five people, at least four will be over the age of 60.

There is evidence that taking the following steps to improve your diet can help to reduce your risk of getting bowel cancer: 

  • Eat five or more portions of fruit and vegetables every day
  • Eat foods high in fibre such as wholegrain bread, cereals and wholemeal pasta
  • Cut down on the amount of processed meat and red meat you eat
  • Maintain a healthy weight

According to Bupa research, 60%[1] of Brits say they are still not getting their five-a-day. Men fare worse than women with just 37% getting their recommended intake, compared with 44% of women. And only 45% of those who consider themselves healthy say they get the recommended number of fruit and veg portions.

Dr Katrina Herren, medical director, Bupa Health and Wellbeing says: “It is worrying to think that over half of the population are not eating enough portions of fruit and vegetables each day. What we put in our body can have a direct impact on our health; a healthy diet, which includes lots of fruit and vegetables, cannot only help with preventing bowel cancer but can also help you to maintain a healthy weight and reduce your risk of illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke, osteoporosis and other types of cancer.”

Further lifestyle advice is recommended to help to reduce your risk of getting bowel cancer:

  • Try to do 150 minutes (two and a half hours) of moderate exercise over a week in bouts of 10 minutes or more. You can do this by carrying out 30 minutes on at least five days each week
  • If you smoke, stop
  • Drink alcohol in moderation – no more than two to three units a day for women and three to four units a day for men
  • Getting enough vitamin D may reduce your risk of developing a number of cancers, including bowel cancer – although more research needs to be done to be certain. Vitamin D is produced naturally by your body when your skin is exposed to sunlight and can also be obtained from some foods, such as oily fish

Symptoms of bowel cancer 

  • Bowel cancer is often painless in the early stages. The Department of Health recently launched a national ‘Be Clear on Cancer’ campaign to raise awareness of the signs of bowel cancer and encourage people to visit their GP if they experience the main symptoms, which are blood in the faeces or loose stools for three weeks or more. There are other symptoms to be aware of, including:
  • Weight loss without any obvious reason and/or loss of appetite
  • Tiredness or breathlessness for no apparent reason – this may be caused by the small amount of blood loss from your bowel, resulting in anaemia (when there are too few red blood cells or not enough haemoglobin in your blood) 
  • Pain, or a lump or swelling in your abdomen (tummy)

These symptoms aren't always caused by bowel cancer. For example, problems such as piles may cause blood to appear in your faeces. However, if you have any of these symptoms, see your GP.

Dr Katrina Herren continues: “Most people may experience some of these symptoms from time to time and it can be an embarrassing topic to discuss. However, if you experience any of these symptoms you must visit your GP.  

“If it’s not serious it will put your mind at rest. If it is cancer, the earlier it is diagnosed, the better the outlook.”

Causes of bowel cancer 

The causes of bowel cancer aren't fully understood at present but your risk of bowel cancer increases if you have:

  • A family history of bowel cancer
  • One of two inherited bowel conditions that increase your risk – familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) or hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC), also known as Lynch syndrome
  • A long-term bowel condition, such as Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis
  • A diet that is low in fibre, fruit and vegetables and high in red and processed meats
  • An inactive lifestyle or are obese
  • Diabetes 

Screening for bowel cancer

Screening is important for detecting bowel cancer in its early stages. The Department of Health has introduced a bowel cancer screening programme in England. Bowel cancer screening kits are sent to men and women aged between 60 and 69, although if you're older you can also request a kit. There are different programmes running in the rest of the UK. Ask your GP whether the screening programme has started in your area.

The screening kit contains a faecal occult blood (FOB) test that can detect small amounts of blood in your faeces. The FOB test doesn't diagnose bowel cancer, but the results show if you need to have your bowel examined.

For more information about bowel cancer visit Bupa

A Bupa Colon Health check includes an advanced Computed Tomography (CT) scan of your bowel, known as a virtual colonoscopy, designed to check for polyps and other signs of bowel cancer.

The CT scanner produces two and three-dimensional images of the whole of the colon and rectum, enabling the radiologist to see the inside of the bowel, and spot any abnormality. The most common abnormality to see is bowel polyps; larger polyps have a high chance of becoming cancerous.

If the scan detects any significant polyps, we will discuss this with you. The next step would normally be a conventional colonoscopy, which would enable a doctor to remove the polyps. Removing significant polyps dramatically reduces the chance of bowel cancer developing and, if bowel cancer is present within the polyp, may even be curative.

To find out how to book a Bupa Colon Health Check


[1] Data taken from Bupa Health Pulse 2011. Research carried out by Ipsos MORI between 22nd April and 23rd May 2011 on 2001 people (aged 18+) in the UK.

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