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Bowel cancer

What causes bowel cancer?

The exact cause of bowel cancer isn’t yet fully understood but genetics can be a factor. Some inherited diseases have been known to cause or lead to the development of bowel cancer and some genetic mutations can also play a role in its progression.

With bowel cancer being the second most common cause of cancer deaths in the UK, being aware of and spotting the symptoms early ensures you have the best possible care and treatment before it spreads too far.

The majority of bowel cancers occur in the large intestine but in can also occur in the rectum. In some very rare cases, cancer can occur in the anus.

Bowel cancer symptoms

The warning signs of bowel cancer are often quite vague. That said, it is easy to know when you need to consult a doctor. In many cases, these symptoms are actually the result of an easily-treatable condition such as an infection or piles.

However, the symptoms of potential bowel cancer shouldn’t be overlooked. If you begin to notice these signs, then it’s important to see a doctor:

  • Feeling the need to use the toilet more often than normal, or that your bowels haven’t been properly emptied
  • Bleeding after using the toilet, even a small amount
  • Passing mucus with your bowel motions
  • Looser stools or diarrhoea and constipation
  • Severe or unexplained tiredness
  • Losing weight unexpectedly
  • Lumps in the abdomen or general discomfort

Who is at risk of bowel cancer?

Eight out of 10 cases of bowel cancer occur in individuals over the age of 50, though it can occur in practically any age bracket.

Bowel cancer is the third most common cancer in men and the second most common cancer in women. It can also be caused by increasing age or as a result of previous conditions such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.

If you have a history of bowel cancer in the family, then it may be advisable to have a genetic screening test to see if you are at risk from developing inherited bowel cancer. This is particularly important if you have a close relative diagnosed before the age of 45 or two other relatives with the condition.

There are also lifestyle factors that can influence your risk of developing bowel cancer. It is commonly caused by a diet that is high in fat and low in fibre, fruit and vegetables. A high red meat intake can also increase your risk of developing bowel cancer.

Other lifestyle choices you can make to reduce your risk of bowel cancer include exercising regularly and not smoking. By keeping to an active and healthy lifestyle, you can greatly reduce your chances of being diagnosed with bowel cancer, though it is still advisable to speak to a doctor even if you’re not sure about potential symptoms.

You are also more at risk if you’ve had abnormal growths of tissue called polyps develop in the colon or bowel. These often do not turn out to be cancerous, but if they are not treated or removed there is a chance that they could become cancerous.

A condition known as familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP), accounts for about one per cent of all cancers of the colon and rectum and can cause widespread development of these polyps during the teenage years. Many of these can soon become cancerous.

Palliative care for bowel cancer patients

If bowel cancer is detected early, the chances of a cure increase by as much as 80%. It is diagnosed after a barium enema or colonoscopy, which is used to view the inside of the bowel and take a biopsy sample.

It is also possible for bowel cancer to be detected as a result of a screening process arranged by a GP, such as the National Bowel Cancer Screening Programme. This process examines things like the blood in the faeces and a number of other warning signs.

Following one of these procedures, surgery is usually the next stage of treatment. Bowel cancer treatment can also be from chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

Many people fear that they will need to have a colostomy fitted, where the bowel is opened through a hole in the skin of the abdomen. However, this isn’t always the case and even if one is needed it is only likely after a tumour is removed from the rectum. Even then, a colostomy may only be a temporary measure.

Being diagnosed with bowel cancer, or any form of cancer, can be difficult to take and you’re sure to have questions about the care or treatment that you might need. Make sure you talk through every possible treatment option not only with your doctor but with your family and friends too.

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Page reviewed by Kerry Feltwell, Regional Clinical Lead on November 15, 2021