Bowel cancer is a general term that is used to describe cancer that begins in the large bowel. Depending on where in the bowel the cancer starts, bowel cancer can sometimes be referred to as colon cancer, or rectal cancer.
How common is bowel cancer?
Excluding non melanoma skin cancer, bowel cancer is the second most common cancer among women in Northern Ireland and the third most common among men. Around 1,000 new cases of bowel cancer are diagnosed in Northern Ireland each year.
What causes bowel cancer?
Exactly what causes cancer to develop inside the bowel is still unknown, but certain risk factors have been indentified. These include:
- age - around 80 per cent of bowel cancer cases develop in people who are aged 60 or over
- eating a high fat diet
- having a bowel condition, such as Chron’s disease or ulcerative colitis
- having a family history of bowel cancer
- alcohol misuse
- What causes bowel cancer - Northern Ireland Cancer Network website
You can reduce your risk of developing bowel cancer by:
- having a healthy diet
- taking regular exercise
- maintaining a healthy weight
- stopping smoking
- Reducing the risk of bowel cancer - Northern Ireland Cancer Network website
Signs and symptoms of bowel cancer
The initial symptoms of bowel cancer include:
- blood in your stools (faeces) and/or bleeding from your rectum
- a change to your normal bowel habits that persists for more than six weeks, such as diarrhoea, constipation, or passing stools more frequently than usual
- abdominal pain
- unexplained weight loss
As bowel cancer progresses, it can sometimes cause bleeding inside the bowel which eventually will mean that your body will not have enough red blood cells. This is known as anaemia. Symptoms of anaemia include fatigue and breathlessness.
In some cases, bowel cancer can cause an obstruction in the bowel. Symptoms of a bowel obstruction include:
- a feeling of bloating, usually around the navel (belly button)
- abdominal pain
You should always contact your GP as soon as possible if you experience any of these symptoms.
Bowel cancer screening
A bowel cancer screening programme has been introduced in Northern Ireland and is being rolled out on a phased basis by Health and Social Care Trust area . The programme aims to detect signs of bowel cancer at a very early stage when there is a good chance that treatment will be successful.
All men and women aged 60-71 who are registered with a GP will be offered the opportunity to take part in the screening programme every two years. Screening is a simple test that involves taking a small stool (faeces) sample and testing it for the presence of blood.
A positive result is an early warning sign that something may be wrong and will require further investigation. However, the vast majority of people will have a normal test result.
A freephone helpline is available on 0800 015 2514 for anyone who has questions about screening kit.
Remember that the earlier the cancer is diagnosed, the greater the chance of achieving a complete cure – so it is very important that you take part in screening when it is offered to you.
Treatment for bowel cancer
Treatment for bowel cancer will depend on the stage and exact location of your cancer. Bowel cancer can be treated using one or a combination of chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery.
As with most types of cancer, the outlook for individual cases of bowel cancer depends on how far the cancer has advanced at the time of diagnosis.