Bowel cancer: Are you at risk?

Cut back: The link between consumption of red meat and bowel cancer incidence is evident, and you should also watch your alcohol intake.
Cut back: The link between consumption of red meat and bowel cancer incidence is evident, and you should also watch your alcohol intake.

Australia has one of the highest bowel cancer rates in the world, with 15,253 people diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2014.

After lung cancer, bowel or colorectal cancer (cancer of the large intestine or rectum) is our second biggest cancer-related killer, responsible for 4346 deaths in 2015.

“Australia has a growing overweight and obese population. Along with insufficient physical activity, dietary factors and high tobacco and alcohol consumption rates, these factors contribute to the high rate of bowel cancer,” said Sydney-based Gastroenterologist Dr Darren Pavey. Genetic predisposition also plays a role.

“The first thing I tell my patients is to stop smoking and to reduce alcohol consumption,” Dr Pavey said. “For men that means no more than two standard drinks a day, and for women no more than one.” 

Although not entirely clear what makes red meat carcinogenic (cancer-promoting), the link between its consumption and bowel cancer incidence is evident; Dr Pavey said that people should eat no more than 100 grams of lean red meat per day and avoid charred meat and processed meats.

He said a diet rich in fibre is likely to reduce bowel cancer risk. The theory is regular bowel movement allows for less contact between foods and potential carcinogens with the bowel lining.

Non-Modifiable Risk Factors: “Bowel cancer incidence goes up significantly from age 50,” Dr Pavey said. The National Bowel Cancer Screening Program distributes kits to detect blood in the stool to 50 to 74-year-olds every two years.

“Patients are at higher risk of developing bowel cancer if there is a family history of bowel cancer or bowel polyps (pre-cancerous lumps). They should be screened earlier and more frequently, as should those with an inflammatory bowel disease history, such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.”

Treatment: “If a polyp or growth in the bowel that may be an early cancer is found, we can remove it at the time of colonoscopy, following a positive faecal occult blood test (where traces of blood are found in the stool). That may be all that is required,” Dr Pavey said.

“In more advanced cases patients might require surgery, and chemotherapy or radiotherapy.”

Early detection is key: “One, be aware of those modifiable (lifestyle) risk factors, and two, participate in screening from age 50, because often there are no symptoms,” Dr Pavey said.

“Patients should discuss with their doctor any bleeding from the bowel, changes in bowel habit, unexplained weight loss or severe abdominal pain.

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