Typically, when diagnosed at an early stage, the treatment of bowel cancer can be highly successful. Bowel cancer screening tests make it possible to also spot early signs of bowel cancer before it even develops. Specialist advice is available so you can feel reassured that you are getting the highest level of healthcare to diagnose and treat the symptoms you are experiencing.
- The general risk of developing bowel cancer is 7% for men and 5% for women
- Each year 41,000 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer in the UK
- 90% of cases are diagnosed in people over 50 years of age
- 2,500 younger people (under 50 years of age) are also diagnosed each year in the UK
- Current statistics show that 57% of people diagnosed with bowel cancer will survive for 10 years
- If the cancer is diagnosed early (Stage 1) there is an almost 100% chance of cure
- Bowel cancer detected late (Stage 4) leads to a five-year survival rate of around 40%
- The NHS Bowel cancer screening programme is being made available for anyone over 55 years of age
- Bowel cancer screening saves lives as it detects bowel polyps before they turn into cancerous cells
The exact cause of bowel cancer is not known, however there is an increased risk associated with:
- Age – bowel cancer is most common in over 50 year olds
- Family history – if an immediate relative developed bowel cancer under age 50, your lifetime risk is higher than most and screening is required even before you turn 50.
- Diet – particularly a high intake of red or processed meat with a low intake of fibre
- Weight – being obese or overweight and generally inactive
- Alcohol and smoking
- Previous history of colon polyps
- A change in bowel habit from your usual frequency and consistency
- Frequent diarrhoea or loose bowel movements
- Frequent passing of blood in your stools (bright blood or mixed into the stool)
- A sensation of not having emptied your bowels fully
- Unexplained abdominal pain
- Bloating or discomfort caused by eating
- Unintentional weight loss and loss of appetite
- Anaemia or low blood count
- Excessive tiredness, linked to anaemia
The symptoms of bowel cancer may not necessarily make you feel unwell, however they are usually persistent, so it is important to be aware of your body and pay attention to any distinct alteration to your normal patterns.
Bowel cancer can sometimes present with no symptoms at all. This explains why bowel cancer screening is so important for people of a certain age. An awareness of previous family history of bowel polyps or bowel cancer is essential to considering the need for screening for this condition.
A primary test for bowel cancer could involve a simple stool test, where the doctor is looking for blood or abnormal DNA.
Seeing blood may not mean cancer as there are many other common conditions that could be causing this symptom (e.g. haemorrhoids, fissures).
If there is blood, you are likely to require further testing to definitively rule out bowel cancer.
A flexible sigmoidoscopy involves passage of a flexible camera into the rectum and distal colon, after preparation using an enema.
This examination is invasive but only looks at the last part of the colon. The risk of perforation is very low (1 in 10,000) and sedation isn’t usually required.
If any bowel polyps are discovered then a full colonoscopy will be required.
A colonoscopy is the best way to fully assess the colon and detect bowel cancer.
This examination is invasive and assesses the entire length of the colon, using a special flexible tube with a camera called a colonoscope. Formal bowel preparation is necessary the day before the procedure.
Polyps that are found can be removed during the procedure, and biopsies taken where indicated.
Whilst the risk is still low, there is a chance of perforation (1 in 1,200).
A double contrast (virtual) CT scan can be performed to assess the colon looking for signs of bowel cancer or bowel polyps.
It is a useful non-invasive test, but does require cleansing of the bowel prior to the procedure. However, small polyps can be missed. Tissue samples cannot be taken, so if the results highlighted an abnormality, a full colonoscopy would be required.
If the doctor does detect bowel polyps then you can be regularly assessed by surveillance endoscopy thereby reducing the risk of developing cancer.
Bowel cancer screening is thought to prevent two people from getting bowel cancer, for every 300 screening tests performed. This will also prevent one person from dying of bowel cancer, as success of treatment is largely linked to the stage at which the cancer is diagnosed.
Find out more regarding the benefits of bowel cancer screening
- Radiotherapy – using radiation to attack cancer cells
- Chemotherapy and biological therapy – using medication to attack cancer cells
- Surgery – where the affected part of the large bowel is removed.
- This is the most effective way to treat bowel cancer, particularly if the cancer is limited to the bowel.
- It can usually be performed using keyhole surgery which means a faster recovery , small scars and less pain after the procedure.
- In some cases, dependent on the location of the growth, surgery may lead the need for a stoma where the bowel opens onto the skin on the front of the abdomen. This can be an ileostomy or a colostomy. It can be permanent or temporary. This will all be discussed with you prior to surgery so that you are fully aware of the implications for you.
Bowel cancer that is detected in Stage 1 of development typically stands almost 100% chance of recovery, as cancerous bowel polyps can be removed and then carefully monitored for new growths.
Surgery is most likely with Stage 4 bowel cancer.
Read FAQs about bowel cancer treatment
Natalie has been a consultant gastroenterologist since 2016 and in addition to her private practice she currently holds a post at Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, with a specialist interest in gastroenterology and…
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Consultant Gastroenterologist & HPB Physician