Bowel cancer: the most preventable common cancer

X-ray style bowel diagramBowel cancer is the UK’s fourth most prevalent form of cancer and the second biggest killer. Its discovery is sometimes a cause for embarrassment, which partially explains the high number of cases that are not identified until the disease is at an advanced stage. But aside from looking for symptoms of bowel cancer in the toilet bowl, there is a lot we can all do to protect ourselves from this form of cancer.

This is Bowel Cancer Awareness Month and the great news is that bowel cancer – also known as colorectal cancer – is one of the most preventable forms of cancer. Nearly half of all cases in the UK could be prevented every year – more than 20,000 cases – if we all kept at a healthy weight, followed a healthy diet, were more physically active and didn’t drink alcohol. Even relatively small steps in the right direction, such as cutting down alcohol intake, would reduce a person’s risk of developing bowel cancer. These figures would be even higher if you take into account another risk factor, namely smoking.

The even better news is that these changes to our lifestyles would also protect us against a number of other common forms of cancers, as well as diseases such as type-2 diabetes and heart disease.

Men at greater risk

Men, in particular, are at risk of bowel cancer with figures from the International Agency for Cancer Research (an agency of the World Health Organisation) showing that, in the UK, men have a 50 per cent higher chance of getting bowel cancer than women (36.8 cases per 100,000 compared to 24.4).

This is largely because although men are more physically active than women, they also drink more, eat more unhealthily, smoke more and are more likely to be overweight than women.

How to reduce risk

So, bowel cancer risk can be significantly reduced by changes to our diet and lifestyle. Below we’ve outlined the main changes we can all make to cut our chances of getting the disease.

  • Stay in shape: Research shows that being overweight or obese, in particular carrying extra weight around the waist, increases bowel cancer risk. WCRF’s BMI calculator will tell you if you’re a healthy weight for your height.
  • Be more active: Using up calories helps avoid weight gain and moves food through your digestive system more quickly. Our exercise calorie calculator tells you how many calories you can burn doing a range of different activities.
  • A healthy diet: Wholegrains, pulses, vegetables and fruits contain fibre and help keep the digestive system healthy and protect against bowel cancer. There is strong scientific evidence that eating a lot of red and processed meat increases the risk of bowel cancer. We recommend eating no more than 500g (cooked weight) of red meat a week while avoiding processed meat as much as possible.
  • Cut down on alcohol: To reduce your risk as much as possible, we recommend not drinking alcohol at all. But if you do drink, aim to follow UK guidelines of drinking no more than 14 units a week. The alcohol calorie calculator reveals the ‘hidden’ calories in alcoholic drinks.
  • Don’t smoke: It goes without saying really. NHS stop smoking can help you quit.
  • Screening: It is important to attend if offered a NHS bowel screening appointment as the majority of bowel cancer cases can be successfully treated if detected early. NHS Choices has plenty of information about bowel cancer screening, symptoms and treatment.

What to look out for

The symptoms of bowel cancer may not appear during the early stages of the disease and symptoms in the later stages are shared with less serious conditions such as haemorrhoids. But you should see a doctor if you notice any of the following symptoms:

  • Blood in faeces or bleeding from the rectum.
  • Any change in your normal bowel habits that persists for more than three weeks, such as diarrhoea, constipation or passing stools more frequently than usual.
  • Abdominal pain.
  • Unexplained weight loss.
  • Anaemia, caused by bleeding inside the bowel that reduces the level of red blood cells. Symptoms include fatigue and breathlessness.
  • Bowel obstruction manifested as feeling bloated, usually around the belly button; abdominal pain; constipation; vomiting.

Although these symptoms are unlikely to be due to bowel cancer, these types of symptoms need to be investigated further so see your doctor to be on the safe side.

Download or order our leaflet on bowel cancer prevention for more advice on how to protect yourself against bowel cancer.