Bowel cancer: The facts
• In Ireland, approximately 2,480 people each year develop cancer of the bowel, also known as colon, rectal or colorectal cancer.
• Bowel cancer affects both men and women.
• It is the fourth most common cancer in Ireland following skin cancer, prostate cancer and breast cancer.
• Bowel cancer is also the second most common cause of cancer death in Ireland.
• There is a one in nineteen chance of developing the disease in your lifetime.
• The risk increases with age.
• When bowel cancer is caught at the earliest stage, more than nine in 10 people will survive for more than five years.
The bowel and bowel cancer
The bowel is part of the digestive system. It is divided into two:
• The small bowel or small intestine
• The large bowel or colon and rectum
The food we eat ends up in the large bowel. Here, water and some nutrients are absorbed, leaving waste. Waste passes through the rest of the large bowel before leaving the body. Bowel cancer is cancer of the large bowel – colon and rectum.
Risks and causes of bowel cancer
The causes of most cases bowel cancer are still unknown but research is going on all the time to establish why some people develop this disease. Researchers have already found several risk factors that may increase your chances of developing bowel cancer. These include:
• Age – more than seven in 10 cases are in people over the age of 65. It is unusual for people under the age of 50 to get the disease.
• Diet – bowel cancer appears to be associated with diet. The incidence of bowel cancer is higher in countries that have a low intake of fibre and a high intake of fat.
• Family history – a family history of bowel cancer (at least three close relatives) may increase the risk of getting the disease.
• Polyps (small growths in the bowel) – may increase the risk.
• Bowel diseases – people who have had ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease for a long time also have an increased risk of developing bowel cancer. Ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease are diseases of the lining of the bowel.
Bowel cancer- symptoms
• Blood in, or on, the stools (bowel motions) – the blood may be bright red or dark in colour.
• A change in normal bowel habits such as diarrhoea or constipation for no obvious reason, lasting longer than six weeks.
• Unexplained weight loss.
• Pain in the abdomen or rectum (back passage).
• A feeling of not having emptied your bowel properly after a bowel motion.
Other diseases apart from bowel cancer can cause all of the above symptoms. However, if you experience any of these symptoms make an appointment with your GP to get checked out.
How you can reduce your risk of bowel cancer
Bowel health is important. It may help to reduce your risk of developing bowel cancer if you eat:
• More fibres from cereals, beans, fruit and vegetables.
• Less fat including fatty meats and dairy foods.
• More poultry such as chicken and turkey, and fewer portions of red meat.
• Less cured and processed meat such as bacon, sausages and ham.
• More oily fish such as mackerel, salmon, tuna and sardines.
• Less sugary and fatty processed foods such as cakes biscuits and chocolate.
You can also reduce your risk by:
• Doing at least half an hour of moderate physical activity five times a week. The more active you are, the more you cut the risk of bowel cancer.
• Keeping a healthy weight.
• Drinking less alcohol. The less alcohol you drink, the lower the risk of bowel cancer and many other cancers and diseases.
• Being a non – smoker. If you smoke try to quit. To speak to an advisor, call the HSE Quit Team on Freephone 1800 201 203 or FREETEXT QUIT to 50100.
If a member of your family has been diagnosed with bowel cancer you should consult your doctor who may suggest a simple test to detect blood in your bowel motions (stools). There is more information on this test, called a FIT, below.
Remember, early detection of the disease is your best chance of a cure.
Screening for Bowel Cancer
Bowel screening aims to find bowel cancer at an early stage in people who have no symptoms. It is done with a simple home test called a FIT (faecal immunochemical test) which looks for tiny, invisible amounts of blood in your stool. The stool test does not tell you if you have bowel cancer but it might tell you that you need more tests, such as a colonoscopy.
A colonoscopy is an examination of your bowel using a camera on the end of a thin flexible tube to look for any signs of disease in the lining of your bowel. A small sample of the lining of your bowel (biopsy) may be taken to look at more closely.
Bowel screening may also find other changes in the bowel, such as polyps, which are small growths that are not cancer but, if not removed, might turn into cancer. If polyps are found, they can be removed easily.
BowelScreen – The National Bowel Screening Programme offers regular, free bowel screening to men and women aged 60 to 69. Bowel screening involves a free, quick, easy-to-use home test every two years while in the age-range. You simply collect a stool sample on a sampling stick provided in your test kit and send it back to BowelScreen for analysis You can call BowelScreen on Freephone 1800 45 45 55 to check if you are on the register.
Once you have sent your sample to BowelScreen, you will get a letter with the results in four weeks. Most people will have a normal result. If your results are not normal, this means that blood was found in your stool sample. It does not necessarily mean that you have bowel cancer but it does mean that you may need to have a colonoscopy.
Treatment for bowel cancer
Treatment depends on the stage of the cancer and where it is in the bowel. The main treatments for bowel cancer include surgery, chemotherapy, biological therapy and radiotherapy. It is important that you discuss your treatment with your doctor and let them know if you have any questions or concerns.
If you are undergoing treatment for bowel cancer, this website has information on:
- Coping with feelings and emotions after a cancer diagnosis
- Coping with fatigue from cancer
- Coping with other side effects and sexuality issues
- Advice on diet and nutrition during and after bowel cancer treatment
You can also download a copy of the free booklet, ‘Bowel Cancer: From diagnosis to recovery‘ here.
Other bowel cancer resources.
To download this information in leaflet format, click here.
To ask a Marie Keating Nurse a specific question, please click here.
To visit the BowelScreen website, click here.