Bowel Cancer Awareness Month

Save lives through early detection

June is Bowel Cancer Awareness Month and it brings the positive message, “save lives through early detection” - because bowel cancer is one of the most curable types of cancer if found early.

What is bowel cancer?

Bowel cancer is cancer in any part of the large bowel (colon or rectum). It is sometimes known as colorectal cancer and might also be called colon cancer or rectal cancer, depending on where it starts.

Bowel cancer grows from the inner lining of the bowel and usually develops from small growths on the bowel wall called polyps.  Most polyps are harmless (benign), but some become cancerous (malignant) over time.

If untreated, bowel cancer can grow into the deeper layers of the bowel wall and can spread from there to the lymph nodes.  If the cancer advances further, it can spread (metastasise) to other organs.

In most cases, the cancer is confined to the bowel for months or years before spreading. The National Bowel Cancer Screening Program aims to improve early detection.

Who gets bowel cancer?

Bowel cancer is the third most common cancer affecting people in Australia. It is estimated that about 15,250 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer every year. About one in 21 men and one in 31 women will develop bowel cancer before the age of 75.  It is most common in people over 50, but it can occur at any age.

What causes bowel cancer?

The exact cause of bowel cancer is not known.  However, research shows that people with certain risk factors are more likely to develop bowel cancer.

Risk factors include:

  • older age – most people with bowel cancer are over 50, and the risk increases with age.
  • polyps – having a large number of polyps in the bowel.
  • bowel diseases – people who have an inflammatory bowel disease, such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, have a significantly increased risk, particularly if they have had it for more than eight years.
  • lifestyle factors – being overweight, having a diet high in red meat or processed meats such as salami or ham, drinking alcohol and smoking.
  • strong family history – a small number of bowel cancers run in families.
  • other diseases – people who have had bowel cancer once are more likely to develop a second bowel cancer; some people who have had ovarian or endometrial (uterine) cancer may have an increased risk of bowel cancer.
  • rare genetic disorders – a small number of bowel cancers are associated with an inherited gene.

What are the symptoms of bowel cancer?

Symptoms of bowel cancer include:

  • change in bowel habit with diarrhoea, constipation or the feeling of incomplete emptying;
  • thin bowel movements;
  • blood in the stools;
  • abdominal pain, bloating or cramping;
  • anal or rectal pain;
  • a lump in the anus or rectum;
  • weight loss;
  • fatigue; and
  • unexplained anaemia.

If you have any symptoms of bowel cancer that continue for two weeks or more you should see you doctor.

Can bowel cancer be treated?

Everybody who is diagnosed with bowel cancer will have a different cancer treatment plans depending on their person circumstances.

The treatments for bowel cancers include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation or a combination of these.  A person’s prognosis depends on the type and stage of cancer, as well as their age and general health at the time of diagnosis.

People diagnosed with bowel cancer before 70 years old can have their tumour screened for Lynch syndrome to see if they carry the genetic mutation.

How to prevent getting Bowel Cancer?

The risk of bowel cancer can be reduced by not smoking, having a healthy diet with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, limiting consumption of red meat, avoiding processed meats, regular exercise, maintaining a healthy body weight and regular screening after 50 years of age.

For more information visit

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