Bowel cancer is Australia’s second deadliest cancer but is one of the more treatable cancers.
Almost 99% of bowel cancer cases can be treated if detected early.
Talk to your GP about bowel cancer screening options that are suitable for you.
What is Bowel Cancer?
Bowel cancer, also known as colorectal cancer or colon cancer, starts in the colon or rectum, which are part of the digestive system. The cancer usually develops slowly over several years, starting as a non-cancerous growth called a polyp, which can develop into cancer.
Bowel cancer is Australia’s second deadliest cancer but is one of the more treatable cancers. Almost 99% of bowel cancer cases can be treated if detected early.
Australia has one of the highest cases of bowel cancer in the world; 1 in 15 Australians will develop the disease in their lifetime. Bowel cancer affects men and women, young and old, but your risk of developing bowel cancer rises sharply and progressively from 50 years old.
Symptoms of Bowel Cancer
During the early stages of bowel cancer, people may have no symptoms, which is why screening is so important. Any of the below symptoms could indicate colon or rectal cancer and should be investigated by your GP if they persist for more than two weeks.
- Blood in your poo or rectal bleeding
- A recent, persistent change in bowel habit (e.g. diarrhoea, constipation or the feeling or incomplete emptying)
- A change in the shape or appearance of your poo (e.g. narrower poos or mucus in poo)
- Abdominal pain or swelling
- Pain or a lump in the anus or rectum
- Unexplained anaemia causing tiredness, weakness or weight loss
Modifiable Risk Factors
Certain behaviours increase your risk of bowel cancer, including:
- Drinking alcohol (two or more alcoholic drinks a day)
- Eating an excessive amount of red meat
- Eating processed meat
- Being overweight or obese
Changing these behaviours through positive diet and lifestyle choices will reduce your risk.
Non-modifiable Risk Factors
Some risk factors are non-modifiable, meaning they can’t be changed, including:
- Age: The risk of bowel cancer increases with age and is most commonly diagnosed in people aged 70-79 years.
- Family history: In 30% of bowel cancer cases diagnosed, there is a family history of bowel cancer
- Hereditary conditions such as Familial Adenomatous Polyposis (FAP) and Hereditary Non-Polyposis Colon Cancer (HNPCC; Lynch Syndrome).
- Personal health history including colon, rectum, ovary, endometrium, or breast cancer.
- A history of polypus in the colon
- A history of ulcerative colitis (ulcers in the lining of the large intestine) or Crohn's disease
Having one or more risk factors does not always mean that you will get bowel cancer, and some people diagnosed with bowel cancer may not have any known risk factors. The best way to reduce your risk is to make positive diet and lifestyle choices and work with your GP to control non-modifiable risk factors.
Screening is another way to reduce your risk of bowel cancer and is crucial for early detection. Screening is recommended every 2 years for people aged 50-74 years, at average or near average risk* of bowel cancer. GPs can also offer screening every 2 years to people aged 45-49 years who request it after being fully informed of the (benefits and possible harms) of testing.
Screening can be done with an at home test, also known as a faecal immunochemical test (FIT). The test involves collecting small samples of toilet water or poo, placing them on a card or in a container, and mailing them to a pathology laboratory for analysis. The results are then sent back to the individual and their GP.
* People with (i) no first- or second-degree relative with bowel cancer; or (ii) one first-degree relative with bowel cancer diagnosed at 55 years or older; or (iii) one first-degree and one second-degree relative diagnosed with bowel cancer at 55 years or older.
Bowel Cancer Australia is a 100% community-funded national charity dedicated to prevention, early diagnosis, research, quality treatment and care, so everyone affected by bowel cancer can live their best life.
All resources and information has been provided by Bowel Cancer Australia.