What is Bowel Cancer? Does Weight Matter?

April is Bowel Cancer Awareness Month and according to new statistics UK women are not considering their cancer risk when it comes to their weight.  In fact, only 1 in 10 UK women would be motivated to lose weight to reduce their chances of getting the disease.

woman jogging in the park

In line with new 2017 NHS Digital statistics, 58% of women in the UK are currently overweight or obese, and 27% of women are currently inactive (doing less than 30 minutes of exercise a week).

Maintaining a healthy weight is essential not just for overall health but also to help prevent cancer development.

Despite this, the latest research points to the vast majority of women in the UK not being motivated to lose weight to cut their risk of cancer.

The new research conducted independently on behalf of BMI Healthcare as part of its April Be Bowel Cancer Aware campaign reveals that 42% of UK women would feel embarrassed to tell someone if they had irregular bowel habits or blood in their stool, the two key warning signs of cancer.

The new figures raise the concern that women are putting themselves at increased risk of late diagnosis because they are too embarrassed to tell anyone about their bowel habits.

More than a quarter (27%) of women have or may have had bowel cancer-related symptoms. Yet of these, 40% of women did not discuss these symptoms with anyone – this includes just talking to a partner, friend or a family member.

Obesity and a high body mass index (BMI) ratio are strongly associated with an increased risk of bowel cancer. Additional body fat is classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the World Cancer Research Fund as a cause of bowel cancers.

An estimated 13% of bowel cancers in the UK are linked to being overweight or obese and the risk of this type of cancer is 46% higher in people with the largest waist circumference, compared to those with the smallest.

Maintaining a healthy weight through diet and exercise is essential to lowering your risk of the 2nd biggest cancer killer.

Bowel cancer can affect both men and women of any age. It is the 4th most common cancer in the UK, and the 2nd biggest cancer killer, with someone dying of bowel cancer every 30 minutes in the UK.

Over half of bowel cancer cases are diagnosed late, but an early diagnosis is crucial. To improve the number of early diagnoses, we all need to be aware of the symptoms, the national screening programme and be confident in speaking about changes in our 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
  • or a lower than normal level of red blood cells (anaemia).

The 2017 study assessed 1,039 men and women in the UK, to gain the public’s insights into the symptoms and risk factors of bowel cancer.

BMI Healthcare is working with the charity Beating Bowel Cancer, to help raise awareness of the disease throughout the UK. Their specialist team of Gastroenterologists, Colorectal Surgeons and Specialist Oncologists have put together a guide with everything you need to know about it.  View and download their free Be Bowel Aware guide, video and infographics, please visit: https://www.bmihealthcare.co.uk/be-bowel-cancer-aware

Here’s some expert advice from Mr Lee Dvorkin, Consultant General & Colorectal Surgeon at BMI Healthcare.

What is bowel cancer?

“Bowel cancer, also known as colorectal cancer, is cancer situated anywhere in the large bowel (the colon or rectum). It is the 4th most common cancer in the UK and the second most common cause of cancer death with over 41,000 new cases diagnosed each year. It is most common in the over 60’s and is rare in people younger than 40 years old. The majority of cases develop from pre-cancerous polyps (tiny growths in the bowel), which if left untreated can, over years, develop into cancer.”

Who is most at risk?

“The biggest single risk factor is age. More than 8 out of 10 cancers of the bowel are diagnosed in people aged 60 or over. So the risk increases as you get older.

Other factors thought to increase the risk include smoking, obesity and eating excessive red meat, alcohol, animal fat and sugar.

A reduced risk has been noted in those who exercise and eat more fibre and pulses.

There are some other medical conditions that increase the risk of bowel cancer and these include; Ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s Disease and having lots of polyps (which are more common as you get older).”

If there is a family history of bowel cancer, should extra precaution be taken?

“Colorectal cancer is very common so having a relative with this type of cancer is not unusual. The chance of getting cancer of the bowel goes up only if the family history is very strong. A strong family history means having several relatives with bowel cancer, especially if they are particularly young.

“Examples of a strong family history might be; having a first-degree relative diagnosed before the age of 45 or having two first degree relatives diagnosed at any age. To have a strong family history, the affected relatives must all come from the same side of the family.

“If you have a strong family history of this type of cancer you may need to be referred to a genetics service. You will need to see a bowel specialist for regular colonoscopies to pick up any signs of cancer as early as possible.”

How is bowel cancer detected?

“Usually patients develop symptoms and go to see their GP. The GP will do a rectal examination and some blood tests and then send the patient to see a specialist in the hospital.

The two most common investigations to diagnose bowel cancer is a colonoscopy (a camera examination of the large bowel) and a CT colonogram (instead of having the camera put inside your bowel, the doctor looks at x-ray pictures of the bowel).

“Some patients without symptoms are diagnosed through the NHS. The Bowel Cancer Screening Programme is offered to everyone aged 60 to 69 years old (75 years in some areas).

Every 2 years patients are asked to send a poo sample to the laboratory. If blood is detected in the poo a colonoscopy is offered to see if there are early signs of cancer.”

What treatments are available?

“The treatment depends on how advanced the cancer is when it is diagnosed. The mainstay of treatment for confirmed colorectal cancer is an operation to remove the cancer and its surrounding lymph glands.

The bowel ends are usually joined back together but sometimes a colostomy bag is required. Nowadays, these operations are performed by keyhole surgery and patients typically spend less than a week in hospital.

“Often, surgery is all the treatment that is needed but If the cancer is advanced chemotherapy is offered and this can last for 6 months. Surgery can also be used to remove certain cancers that have spread to the liver or lungs but this is not always possible.

“For cancer in the rectum, radiotherapy is often used to shrink down the tumour before surgery.”

If you are living with bowel cancer and would like to find out more about the changes you could make, the treatments available, please visit the NHS website.

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