Bowel cancer, often referred to as colorectal cancer, can be a serious condition if left undiagnosed and untreated. Cells in a healthy body divide naturally and grow in a controlled way but when cancer develops, cells change and often grow erratically. In terms of bowel cancer, the cancer cells could stay in the bowel but they can also spread to other parts of the body such as your liver or lungs.
Bowel cancer typically starts with wart-like growths also known as polyps appearing on the wall of the bowel. The bowel forms part of the digestive system which consists of the small bowel (small intestine) and the large bowel (colon and rectum). Polyps are common in older people but most don’t become cancerous and with early detection, surgery can safely remove them.
To help pharmacy teams better understand the importance of bowel cancer, screening and early diagnosis, VirtualOutcomes have compiled an online training course for the entire team. It is easily accessible on our website.
Bowel Cancer Risk Factors
While scientists may not know the cause of most forms of bowel cancer, they have identified certain factors that can increase the risk. They have divided this into two categories, i.e. modifiable and non-modifiable.
Modifiable Risk Factors
Looking at modifiable risk factors, we refer to things like smoking, drinking alcohol and obesity. More than 50% of cases in the UK are linked to lifestyle. The three main culprits are smoking, excessive alcohol intake and obesity. Smoking and drinking account for 1 in 10 cases of bowel cancer while obesity is about 13 in every 100.
Further studies have indicated that red and processed meat also increase the risk. This mainly refers to charred red meat and processed meat whether it’s smoked, cured, salted or preserved. Estimates link these meats to 1 in 5 bowel cancers in the UK. The government recommends that people limit their intake to 70 g (cooked weight) of processed meats which equals eating two sausages daily.
Non-Modifiable Risk Factors
In some cases, being diagnosed with bowel cancer is out of your control and refers to age, strong family history, hereditary conditions and personal health history. People with certain diseases or illnesses are generally more susceptible in developing bowel cancer. These include Type II diabetes, other forms of cancer such as ovarian or digestive system cancers as well as inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD).
The risk category largely depends on the number of close relatives having had bowel cancer and when diagnosis occurred. If someone has several close relatives diagnosed with bowel cancer before the age of 55, they will have a much higher. Some family members may even develop bowel cancer due to an inherited gene mutation. The most common mutations can cause certain conditions like Lynch syndrome, familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) or attenuated familial adenomatous polyposis.
Symptoms Of Bowel Cancer
It is the 4th most common cancer in the UK and while 9 out of 10 cases are in people over 50, it can appear at any age. In fact, there are more than 2500 cases of people under 50 diagnosed with bowel cancer. Early diagnosis and proper treatment protocols are essential to increase survivability.
Symptoms of bowel cancer can be subtle and don’t always make you feel ill which is why an early diagnosis is so important. During the early stages, patients may not have any symptoms and minor changes in bowel movements often go unnoticed. The same applies to rectal bleeding which people often ignore or attribute to haemorrhoids.
As cancerous tumours or polyps grow, they can narrow and block the bowel and cause all sorts of problems. Some of the common symptoms include persistent changes in bowel habits, unexplained weight loss, tiredness and breathlessness. news closer to home,
Importance Of Bowel Cancer Screening
Did you know that someone in the UK is diagnosed with bowel cancer every 15 minutes? That’s nearly 42,000 people every year. Another shocking statistic is that someone dies from the disease in the UK every 30 minutes. Experts believe that bowel cancer fatalities are dropping due to better treatment options and increased awareness through screening programmes.
The earlier they can diagnose the better the prognosis as bowel cancer is treatable and curable. However, the success rate drops significantly as the disease develops as only 15% of patients receive an early diagnosis.
A Public Health England report in November 2017 showed that despite a 3% increase on the previous year, 4 in 10 people over 60 were not getting screened. The one year survival rate for people diagnosed at stage 1 is 98% but when detected at stage 4 (the most advanced stage) the one year survival is only 44% for men and 35% for women.
Screening can detect bowel cancer at an early stage as it is treatable and curable especially when diagnosed early. This summer, the UK will introduce new screening for colorectal cancer called the faecal immunochemical test (FIT) which replaces the guaiac-based (gFOBT). Here is a great article on how BBC journalist Jeremy Brown explains his diagnosis and treatment. As a gastroenterologist had told him: “Don’t die of embarrassment, for God’s sake.”
National Screening Programme
The national population screening programmes identify apparently healthy people with an increased risk of a disease or condition. This will enable earlier treatment and help them make better informed decisions. In August 2018, ministers agreed that future bowel cancer screening in England will start at the age of 50. They previously offered screening every 2 years to men and women aged 60 to 74. Here is a more detailed overview of the screening programme.
Pharmacy teams can support bowel cancer screening campaigns within their pharmacy to help their customers understand how important screening really is even if they have no symptoms. Pharmacies can further support their community by educating customers on lifestyle changes and for that, Virtual outcomes have training modules on obesity, smoking and alcohol. You can also contact us to find out more about our courses and how you can register.
And don’t forget, April is Bowel Cancer Awareness Month so get involved and spread the word!