What is bowel cancer?

Bowel cancer is the third most common form of cancer in England. Sometimes referred to as colon or rectal cancer, depending on where the cancerous cells originate, it has an effect on the large bowel. There are around 38,000 new cases of bowel cancer diagnosed every year in England.

What causes bowel cancer?

In some cases, the cause of bowel cancer remains unknown but the following high risk groups and factors have been identified:

  • Family history – people who have family history of bowel cancer are more likely to develop the disease. A strong family history whereby several relatives have been diagnosed, of which at least one has been diagnosed at a young age
  • Age – bowel cancer is prevalent in older people, with 80 percent of cases involving people in excess of 60 years old
  • Smoking
  • Drinking a lot of alcohol
  • Poor diet

Symptoms of bowel cancer

  • Bleeding from the back passage
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Blood in the stools
  • A lump in the abdomen or rectum
  • Abdominal pain
  • Changes in bowel habits

Many of these symptoms are associated with other health conditions, but it is sensible to see your GP should you experience any of the symptoms listed – early diagnosis improves survival rates considerably.

How is bowel cancer diagnosed?

You should initially visit your GP who will enquire about your health, perform an examination and, if they suspect bowel cancer, refer you to a specialist for supplementary tests to take place in a hospital. Supplementary tests may include internal examinations, such as a barium enema, sigmoidoscopy or a proctoscopy. The results of the tests will be analysed and evaluated in order to attain a solid diagnosis.

Treatment for bowel cancer

Carried out by a multi-disciplinary team treatment for bowel cancer depends on the grade of cancer and whether the cancer has spread to other sections of the body. In the majority of cases surgery will be performed, as well as other treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy. If the case is advanced surgery may no longer be an option, due to the cancer having already spread.

What is the outlook for people with bowel cancer?

The outlook for people with bowel cancer depends on the severity of the case and whether the cancer has spread to other sections of the body. As with any form of cancer early diagnosis and treatment are essential. Survival rates are higher if bowel cancer is diagnosed early, though if only diagnosed at its most advanced stage survival rate are very low.

Living with bowel cancer

Living with bowel cancer can be very difficult, for you as an individual and your family. Your care will be handled by a multi-disciplinary team, who will be on hand to offer support and advice during your medical treatment. If you feel like you need additional support or information, there are a range of cancer charity organisations in the UK waiting to help.

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