Bowel Cancer: Causes, symptoms and importance of screening

bowel cancer, health screening, health promotion

June is Bowel Cancer Awareness Month in Australia, and Bowel Cancer is the second biggest cause of cancer deaths in Australia. It will affect 1 in 14 people by age 85. While it affects people of different ages, those between 50 and 74 are at a higher risk. The condition affects both men and women. Dr Maria Tang delves into the risk factors of Colon Cancer and the importance of screening and early detection. 

What is Bowel Cancer?

Bowel cancer is a general term for cancers that begin in the large bowel/intestines. It is sometimes called colon or colorectal cancer. It is one of the most common cancer afflicting modern society for men and women. The incidence of colon cancer is increasing annually, and this is due to the combination of several factors – genetics (family history of colon cancer), modern diet, vices (e.g. alcohol or smoking), obesity and sedentary lifestyle. The cancer starts in the lining of the large intestines, and it arises from small growths called polyps. About 20% of these polyps, over a period of time, will turn cancerous.

A worrying fact about colon cancer is that it is often asymptomatic, and it may not produce any of the typical symptoms of cancer until it is late in the disease process. On the other hand, bowel cancer is very treatable and can be cured if it is diagnosed early. So, what should you be watching out for?

  • A change in bowel habits that lasts for more than a few days – diarrhoea/constipation
  • Bright red or very dark red blood in your stool
  • Cramping, abdominal pain or bloating
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Changes in the calibre or shape of the stool
  • Extreme tiredness for no apparent reason

Risk Factors for developing colon cancer:

Health Screenings

Prevention is always better than cure and early detection is paramount. That is why it is important for you to attend your regular health screening check-ups. Patients are often asked to drop off a stool sample as part of the health screening investigation. It may be a bit of a nuisance, but it is very important that you do so. This is because we know that a significant number of polyps or colon cancer will lose a small quantity of blood even in the early stages, which is not visible to the naked eye in the stools. Hence, the testing for traces of blood (FOBT – Faecal Occult Blood Test) is one way of detecting the presence of polyp/cancer even when there are no symptoms. This is recommended to be performed once a year for all those aged 50 and over. If the FOBT is positive, a colonoscopy will be required, and your doctor will refer you to a specialist.

Colonoscopy is a more detailed investigation of the large intestines to examine the bowel for any lesions in the colon.

A tumour marker, CEA (Carcinogenic Embryonic Antigen) is secreted into the bloodstream by some colon cancers. This is done as a blood test and your doctor will discuss in more detail if it is required to do so.

Bowel cancer is very treatable and cured if it can be diagnosed early. If you have any of the above symptoms, do not be embarrassed and please don’t ignore them. Even if you do not have symptoms, it is still important to come for your regular health screening checks with your doctor. This is especially so in individuals who have a family history or are above the age of 50 years old. Still, colon cancer has also been increasingly found in much younger people. So, no matter your age, if you are experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned above, you should see your doctor immediately.

Dr Maria Tang graduated from United Medical and Dental Schools of Guy’s and St Thomas’, University of London, UK in 1998. Dr Tang is a Member of the Royal College of General Practitioners (MRCGP, UK). In addition, she holds a Diploma in Obstetrics and Gynaecology (DRCOG, UK) as well as a Diploma in Family Planning and Reproductive Healthcare (DFFP, UK). Dr Maria Tang is based at IMC Katong.

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