Bowel cancer: important tips for early prevention

A few recent high profile studies have attempted to shine a light on a deadly and often ignored illness: bowel cancer. It's not a pretty topic, but it's an important one; bowel cancer is Australia's second most commonly diagnosed form of cancer, and its effects are widespread.

Throughout February, Bowel Cancer Australia has been running their Don't Wait Until It's Too Late campaign, which aims to raise awareness of the dangers of the condition and urges people at risk to get tested.

An associated study published in the journal Public Health Research and Practice found that 47 percent of people aged over 50 were unfamiliar with the recommended bowel cancer screening test, and only 24 per cent correctly identified bowel cancer risk factors.

Additionally, according to a 2013 study from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), Australia has one of the highest rates of diagnosis anywhere in the world. The resulting mortality rate is higher in Australia than in many other nations, including the USA. In short, these statistics draws the need for prevention into sharp focus.

What is bowel cancer?
Bowel cancer is a malignant growth that attacks the human body and immune system in the same manner as many other forms of cancer. Polyps (tiny growths located within the lining of the larger bowel) can develop into bowel cancers if they are untreated or not removed. Polyps can become cancerous with the passage of time, but not all polyps are cancerous. Once the growths are malignant, they will cause an almost complete blockage within the bowel. The process is painful and the mortality rate is unusually high.

In 2013, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) found that only 66 per cent of Australians were likely to be alive five years after diagnosis and treatment. The alarming report also found the long-term survival rate was much higher among those who had suffered a melanoma, breast cancer or prostate cancer. In many cases, the deadly diagnosis might have been avoided by healthier lifestyle choices and attention to factors that increase the risk of developing the life-altering illness.

Factors that increase your risk
According to the peak organisation, Bowel Cancer Australia, there are many factors associated with the development of bowel cancer. Medical professionals and researchers have suggested individuals pay close attention to the risk factors identified below:

Red and processed meat: Bowel Cancer Australia advises that all people limit their daily intake of red and avoid other processed meats including sausages and cold-cuts. Consume less than 500 grams each week, and regulate your method of cooking meat. Charred and over-cooked meat can damage the bowel's lining, so try to avoid barbeque cooking and open flames.

Alcohol: Alcohol consumption has been linked with the growth of large bowel adenomas (benign tumours). Studies have revealed that consuming 10 grams of ethanol per day increases your risk of bowel cancer by 10%. Seek to reduce your alcohol intake, or cut it entierly. 

Smoking: We all know the far-reaching impacts that smoking has on our health. Smoking has been associated with the development of bowel cancer and bowel adenomas. There's no safe level of tobacco consumption when it comes to bowel cancer. If you're having trouble giving up your smokes, your doctor can help you cut back and improve your overall health.

Body fat and fitness: Understand your body and the places in which your fat is stored. Maintain a healthy BMI and a regular exercise regime.

The best ways to decrease your risk
Some cases of bowel cancer, such as the 25% of cases that are genetic, can't be fully prevented, however there are some risk-reduction tactics. Below, we examine a few common suggestions that can decrease your risk of developing bowel cancer.

Increase your physical activity: A daily regime of physical activity has been linked with lower rates of bowel cancer. Aiming for 30 minutes of exercise each day is a great start. Increasing your incidental exercise is also beneficial, and easy to do, such as taking the stairs rather than the lift or escalators, or jumping off the bus a few stops early and walking the rest of the way.

Eat plenty of fibre-rich food: Dietary fibre can be found in plant foods, unprocessed grains and legumes. Fresh fruit and non-starchy vegetables (including greens) have also been associated with a decreased risk; five servings are suggested each day.

Remember to regularly consume garlic, milk and calcium-rich products: World Health Organisation research suggests a clove of garlic and a glass of milk each day can protect against bowel cancer.

Seek medical advice and undertake regular screening: Bowel Cancer Australia recommends all Australians over 50 (without a predisposition to bowel cancer – for those people it should be more frequent) undergo screening every one or two years. Speak to your doctor if you spot any symptoms (visit this site for more info) and you may undergo a colonoscopy. If you haven't spotted any symptoms, a Faecal Immunochemical Test can detect blood in the stool, a possible indication of bowel cancer.

Though bowel cancer is becoming increasingly prevalent among Australians, there are many ways that we as a society can help prevent its diagnosis. Through careful attention to the symptoms, risk factors and medical solutions, we can perhaps avert the worst.

For more information, including a helpline to get in contact with bowel care nurses, visit Bowel Cancer Australia.

Have you or somebody you loved had to deal with bowel cancer before?

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