6 Things You Need To Know About Bowel Cancer

Bowel cancer is the third most common cancer worldwide. Here’s what you need to know about it to help with early detection.

6 Things You Need To Know About Bowel Cancer

Bowel cancer is the third most common cancer worldwide. Here’s what you need to know about it to help with early detection.

Bowel cancer is the third most common cancer worldwide, and more than 15,000 Australians are diagnosed each year.

Bowel cancer, also known as colorectal cancer or colon cancer (depending on where it’s located in the bowel) grows from the inner lining of the bowel and most often develops from small growths called polyps which can develop into cancer. It’s important to note that not all polyps will develop into cancer, and the chance as to whether it will depends on their size, the number of them, and whether they contain abnormal cells.

If left untreated, bowel cancer can spread to deeper layers of the bowel wall and spread to the lymph nodes.  

There are many things everyone needs to know about this common condition in terms of preventing it and detecting it early, which is why we’re sharing the top 6 things you need to know about bowel cancer.

The more educated you are, the more likely you will be to spot signs and get them checked early - which could end up being what saves your life.  

1. People with Inflammatory Bowel Disease could be at a higher risk of bowel cancer

If you suffer from an Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) such as Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis, you could be at a higher risk of developing bowel cancer.

The longer a person has an IBD, the higher the risk. For example, one analysis of a group of studies showed that about 3% of people who'd been living with Crohn’s for 10 years developed bowel cancer. That number rose to 8% for people that has Crohn’s for 30 years.

So what is it about IBD that increases the cancer risk?

Well, the inflammation at the centre of these diseases is one way they can be linked. Crohn’s causes high levels of inflammation in the intestines, this may make it more likely for abnormal cells to develop in the GI tract which could lead to cancer.

As for colitis, your immune system attacks the lining of the colon and over time this causes damage. As the body attempts to repair said damage, the inflammation and constant cell replacements may result in a mutation that leads to cancer.

If you’re managing an IBD, speak to your doctor about ways to best manage it to reduce your risk of bowel cancer as much as you possibly can.

2. There are different types of bowel cancer

Bowel cancer can develop in different areas of the bowel or back passage. These include:

  • Cancer of the small bowel is called small bowel cancer

  • Cancer of the large bowel is called colon cancer

  • Cancer of the back passage is called rectal cancer

  • Cancer of the bowel opening is called anal cancer

The most common type of bowel cancer is adenocarcinoma - which starts in the gland cells that line the bowel wall. These glands are what produce mucus to help make it easier for stool to pass through the bowel. About 9 out of 10 bowel cancer cases are adenocarcinomas. There are two rarer forms of adenocarcinoma which are mucinous tumours and signet ring tumours.

There are also a number of rare types of bowel cancer that differ from adenocarcinomas, these are:

  • Squamous cell tumours - these are cells that make up the bowel line, together with the gland cells.

  • Carcinoid tumours - this is a slow-growing type of tumour that grows in hormone-producing tissue, usually in the digestive system.

  • Sarcomas - these are tumours that form in bone or muscle. Most of the sarcomas that develop in the bowel are called leiomyosarcomas, which start in the muscle.

  • Lymphomas - these are cancers of the lymphatic system and occur in the colon and rectum.

  • Melanoma - this is a type of skin cancer, and while usually associated with other parts of the body, can actually begin in the rectum.

There are different ways to treat these different types of bowel cancer, also depending on their grade (which we’ll discuss more in the next point!), but generally treatment will include:

  • Surgery to remove the cancerous section

  • Chemotherapy medication to help kill cancer cells

  • Radiotherapy, where radiation is used to kill cancer cells

  • Biological treatment medications taken to increase the effectiveness of chemotherapy and help prevent the cancer from spreading

3. There's a more than 90% chance of survival for early-stage bowel

Now that we’ve delved into the characteristics of what defines Crohn’s and IBS, let’s look at each condition’s symptoms and how they differ.

Stage 1 - 90% of will survive their cancer for 5 years or more after they’re diagnosed. This stage is when the tumour is only found in the inner layers of the bowel wall.

Stage 2 - 80% of people will survive their cancer for 5 years or more after they’re diagnosed.This stage is when the tumour has spread deeper into the layers of the bowel wall.

Stage 3 - 70% of eople will survive their cancer for 5 years or more after they’re diagnosed. This stage is when the tumour is in any layer of the bowel wall and has spread into nearby lymph nodes.

Stage 4 - Only 10% of people will survive their cancer for 5 years or more after they're diagnosed. This stage is when the tumour has spread beyond the bowel to other parts of the body such as the lungs or liver, or to distant lymph nodes.

4. The risk of bowel cancer increases as you age

Bowel cancer will affect 1 in 14 people by the time they reach 85, with those aged between 50 and 74 years of age at a higher risk.

Despite bowel cancer being associated with the older population, it’s still not uncommon for younger people to be diagnosed. In fact, over the past three decades there has been a 367% increase in bowel cancer incidence rates in adolescents and young adults (15-24 years) [1].

5. Bowel Cancer can be present with no symptom

The early signs and symptoms of bowel cancer can be either be invisible or extremely easy to miss, which is unfortunately why just shy of half of diagnosed cases are found at a later stage [2].

That's why regular screening for those 45 years and older is so important, and of course if you’re under 50 and worried about any symptoms (see below), you need to see your doctor as soon as possible to undergo testing and rule out bowel cancer.

Symtpoms you need to watch for are:

  • Blood in your stool and/or bleeding from the rectum

  • A recent and ongoing change in bowel habits, this could be looser stools, constipation, more frequent trips to the toilet or stools that have change in appearance/size

  • Experiencing the feeling of needing to empty your bowels even if you just did

  • A pain or lump in the anus or rectum

  • Abdominal pain, cramping or bloating

  • Unexplained weight loss

  • Unexplained tiredness (usually caused by anaemia)

  • Vomitting

If you are diagnosed with bowel cancer, it’s important to be aware treatment may cause urinary and/or faecal incontinence.

After surgery or radiation therapy, the movement of waste through the large bowel can happen faster and increase urgency to go to the toilet. This may also mean you have less control over bowel movements. These treatment methods can also weaken the muscles in the anus, making it difficult to hold on when you feel the need to empty your bowels.  

Bladder control can also change after surgery or radiation treatment. Radiation can irritate the lining of the bladder because it’s located near the large bowel. This means people can find they need to urinate often or need to go urgently and may not make it to the toilet in time.

This is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of or embarrassed about. There are ways to easily manage incontinence that ensure you’re living as comfortably and confidently as you possibly can as you recover.

The main way is by opting for quality, realiable incontinence pads and guards, pull-ups or all-in-one slips depending on your level of need, such as our Dailee ranges. With fast-acting absorbency, odour locking technology and dermatologically tested material, you can count on us to deliver confidence when it counts. If you’re not sure which product is best suited to you, just give us a call on 1800 86 11 99 (6 days a week) to speak to our friendly product specialists or take our Help Me Choose quiz for product suggestions.

6. There are things you can do to lower your bowel cancer risk

While it’s not possible to completely eradicate the risk of developing bowel cancer, with some risk factors being hereditary, there are many lifestyle changes you can make and maintain to help prevent bowel cancer.  

These include:

Doing at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity/exercise every day

  • Maintaining a healthy weight - men should have a waist circumference of 94cm or less and women 80cm less to be in a healthy range

  • Cutting out processed meats and cutting back on red meat - 500g cooked per week maximum

  • Quit smoking and avoid inhaling tobacco smok

  • Include 2 serves of low-fat dairy, 2 serves of fruit and 5 serves of vegetables every day

  • Eat whole grains and fibre, avoid processed products

  • Reduce alcohol consumption to no more than 2 standard drinks per day, or avoid it completely

  • Get screened every two years if you’re aged 50-74

You can check your cancer risk level by using the Cancer Australia risk calculator.

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