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Bowel cancer is the UK’s second biggest cancer killer. Make sure you know what to look out for.
The dangerous taboo around bowel cancer symptoms
New research in the UK shows that 40% of men and women would feel too embarrassed to speak about bowel cancer symptoms, such as irregular bowel habits or blood in their stool. With those symptoms being key warning signs of cancer, the statistics – compiled in 2017 – are raising concern that men and women are putting themselves at increased risk of late diagnosis.
The research, conducted independently on behalf of BMI Healthcare as part of the April Be Bowel Aware campaign, showed that 29% of the UK public have or may have had symptoms that could indicate bowel cancer. Yet of those 29%, around one third didn’t mention their symptoms – either to a partner, family or friend, or to a medical professional.
The importance of awareness
Someone dies of bowel cancer in the UK every 30 minutes1. It’s the country’s fourth most common cancer and the second biggest cancer killer. One of the biggest challenges in treating the disease is that more than half of bowel cancer cases are diagnosed late – yet early diagnosis increases the chance of successful treatment..
It’s not just embarrassment that’s increasing the risk of late diagnosis.
Research reveals that 57% of the British population are not confident they would know the signs and symptoms of bowel cancer. In fact, just 8% felt confident they know what to watch out for.
To improve the rate of early diagnosis, it’s important to be aware of the symptoms, the national bowel cancer screening programme, and to feel confident discussing any changes in bowel habits.
The common signs and symptoms of bowel cancer include:
- A persistent change in bowel habits, especially going more often or looser stools
- Bleeding from the back passage (rectum) or blood in your stool
- A lump that your doctor can feel in your back passage or abdomen (more commonly on the right side)
- A feeling of needing to strain in your back passage (as if you need to pass a bowel motion), even after opening your bowels
- Unexplained weight-loss or tiredness
- Pain in your abdomen or back passage
- Lower than normal level of red blood cells (anaemia)
The lifestyle link
Despite the prevalence of bowel cancer, there are lifestyle changes that can reduce your risk of developing the disease. According to Mr Lee Dvorkin, Consultant General & Colorectal Surgeon at BMI Healthcare, the biggest single risk factor is age, with more than 80% of bowel cancers diagnosed in those aged 60 or over.
Surprisingly, 89% of respondents said they would not be motivated to lose weight to reduce their cancer risk, despite the link between obesity and cancer. Dvorkin explains that those who exercise and eat more fibre and pulses, such as peas, beans, lentils and nuts, display a reduced risk of developing cancer. Contrastingly, factors such as smoking, obesity, consuming alcohol and eating excessive red meat, animal fat and sugar, are thought to increase risk.
Bowel cancer screening
According to Dvorkin, the majority of bowel cancer cases develop from pre-cancerous polyps (tiny growths in the bowel), which if left untreated can, over years, develop into cancer. Other medical conditions such as Ulcerative colitis and Crohn's Disease can also increase the risk of bowel cancer.
To encourage early diagnosis of the disease, the NHS offers a Bowel Cancer Screening Programme to everyone aged 60 to 69 years old (75 in some areas). Every two years, patients are asked to send a stool sample to the laboratory. If blood is detected in the stool, a colonoscopy is offered to see if there are early signs of cancer. BMI Healthcare also offers a bowel cancer screening service, which you can learn more about here.
BMI Healthcare is working with the charities Beating Bowel Cancer and Bowel & Cancer Research to help raise the awareness of bowel cancer throughout the UK. To learn more about bowel cancer, download our infographic, visit our Be Bowel Cancer Aware site, which includes a guide and video, and listen to our podcast. In the podcast, a panel discusses the bowel cancer journey from awareness, signs and symptoms, and screening, to bowel cancer diagnosis and treatments, including practical and emotional advice, and life after bowel cancer.
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