Bowel cancer is the third most common cancer in Australia, with 15,250 Australians diagnosed each year.
Although it’s more common in people aged over 50, bowel cancer can occur at any age. It’s important to know the risk factors, the symptoms and how to detect it as early diagnosis is key to increasing the success of treatment.
Here are five things to know about bowel cancer.
1. Other names for bowel cancer
Bowel cancer is also known as colorectal cancer, colon cancer or rectal cancer, depending on where it starts. The cancer grows from the inner lining of the bowel and usually develops from small growths called polyps which can become invasive. If untreated, bowel cancer can grow into the deeper layers of the bowel wall and spread to the lymph nodes.
2. Bowel cancer causes
The exact cause of bowel cancer is not known but risk factors include:
having many polyps in the bowel
bowel diseases such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis
lifestyle factors such as being overweight, a diet high in red meat or processed meats, drinking alcohol or smoking
strong family history
other diseases such as having ovarian or endometrial cancer
rare genetic disorders.
3. Signs of bowel cancer
A person may develop bowel cancer and not show any signs at its early stages. However, symptoms may include:
blood in stools
a change in bowel habit, such as diarrhea or constipation
a change in appearance or consistency of bowel movements
As there can be no symptoms in the early stages of bowel cancer, screening is important. The National Bowel Cancer Screening Program offers free immunochemical faecal occult blood test (iFOBT) kits to Australians aged 50 to 74.
5. Preventing bowel cancer
You can lower your risk of bowel cancer by:
being physically active
maintaining a healthy weight
cutting out processed meat
cutting down on red meat
drinking less alcohol
eating wholegrains dietary fibre and dairy foods
getting screened every two years if you’re aged 50 to 74.
For more information about bowel cancer, visit our Bowel Cancer section. If you have symptoms of bowel cancer, have a family history, or are concerned, speak to your doctor.