Bowel Cancer

What is bowel cancer?

Bowel cancer is a malignant growth that typically develops on the inside wall of the large bowel. It can grow there for many years before spreading to other parts of the body. Most of these cancers first appear as tiny growths called polyps, and removing polyps reduces the risk of the cancer developing.

Causes

It’s hard to name a single cause of bowel cancer, but your family, your age and your diet all play a role.
If one of your close relatives has had bowel cancer (or polyps), you have an increased chance of developing it yourself. (Remember, however, that more than 75% of people with bowel cancer don’t have a family history of the disease.)

Your risk of developing bowel cancer jumps significantly from age 40 and continues to increase. By age 75, 1 in 18 Australian men and 1 in 27 Australian women will have developed the disease.

It’s thought that a healthy diet and an active lifestyle could prevent as many as 75% of bowel cancer cases. Eating a wide variety of nutritious foods, limiting salt, sugar, alcohol and saturated fats, and drinking plenty of water can help to protect you from bowel cancer. So can regular exercise to minimise weight gain. (Find out more in the Federal Government’s booklet ‘Dietary Guidelines for Australian Adults’ – [PDF])

Symptoms

Bowel cancer may show few, if any, obvious symptoms until it is quite well established. Often, tiny amounts of blood are leaked from polyps or cancers long before other symptoms appear, and it is this ‘hidden blood’ that the Bowelscan test can detect quite early.

Symptoms of bowel cancer can include:

  • Bleeding from the rectum or any sign of blood after a bowel motion.
  • A change in your bowel habits, like looser bowel motions, severe constipation or needing to go to the toilet more often than usual.
  • Unexplained tiredness.
  • Abdominal pain.

If you have any of these symptoms, see your doctor without delay.

Testing

Bowelscan is organised by Rotary every May in WA (and at various times around Australia) to raise awareness of bowel cancer and provide free testing for early detection.

The blood-detecting kit used by Bowelscan applies an ‘immunochemical’ test called Colovantage. Conducted regularly, it’s a reliable way to spot early signs of bowel cancer or polyps.

During Bowelscan Month, this test is done free of charge - you just pay for the $15 sampling kit. However, you can get the same test from your GP at any time of the year – it’s just that outside the Bowelscan program you will need to pay for the testing.

The Australian Government’s National Bowel Cancer Screening Program delivers free test kits to eligible people 50–74. This program uses a similar immunochemical test to Bowelscan, and if you happen to receive the kit, you should definitely take advantage of it. Find out more at their website.

Remember, though, that your risk of developing bowel cancer begins rising from age 40. If you’re over 40 and you aren’t going to receive one of the government tests soon, you should be doing another screening test regularly, either through the Bowelscan program or through your GP.

When your test is positive

There are a number of causes of ‘hidden blood’, so if your screening test is positive it’s not certain that you have polyps or bowel cancer. To determine the source of the blood, your GP will refer you for a colonoscopy.

In this painless procedure, a doctor examines your large bowel by passing an ‘endoscopic’ camera in through your anus while you’re lightly sedated. Polyps discovered during a colonoscopy can be removed during the procedure.