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Bowel cancer - raising awareness, and treatment

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April is Bowel Cancer Awareness Month. Statistics show that one in 15 men and one in 18 women will be diagnosed with bowel cancer during their lifetime. It is the second largest cause of cancer deaths in the UK, with nearly 43,000 people diagnosed every year. Whether you are directly affected, or want to learn more, it’s important to know that early diagnosis really does save lives and that vital bowel cancer screening is available.

Michael Powar, consultant colorectal surgeon at Nuffield Health Cambridge Hospital
Michael Powar, consultant colorectal surgeon at Nuffield Health Cambridge Hospital

Mr Michael Powar, a leading consultant colorectal surgeon who provides specialist clinics at Nuffield Health Cambridge Hospital, answers key questions to help raise awareness.

About bowel cancer

Bowel cancer is a cancer that occurs in the large bowel which is made up of the colon and rectum. Two-third of cancers occur in the colon and a third in the rectum. It is also known as colorectal cancer. Bowel cancers can develop from polyps that are initially non-cancerous but undergo change and abnormal growth, often over a number of years, into a cancer.

How common is bowel cancer?

It is the fourth most common cancer in the UK after breast, prostate and lung. However, it is the second largest cause of cancer deaths. Every 15 minutes someone in the UK is diagnosed with bowel cancer, equating to approximately 43,000 people each year. Bowel cancer can affect people of all ages but is more common in people over 50 years of age. However, more than 2,600 people under the age of 50 are diagnosed with bowel cancer each year.

Can it be treated?

Bowel cancer is treatable and can be cured, especially if diagnosed early. Increasing awareness of the symptoms and taking part in the screening programme offers the opportunity to catch the disease at an early stage and treat successfully. More than 90 per cent of people survive over five years after their diagnosis if the cancer is treated at an early stage.

What symptoms should I look out for?

Despite being a common cancer, a recent study by the charity Bowel Cancer UK revealed that 45 per cent of people were unable to name one symptom of bowel cancer. Knowing the symptoms could save your life and those of your loved ones. Symptoms to look out for include:

  • Bleeding from your bottom and/or blood in your stool
  • A persistent and unexplained change in your bowel habit
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • A new pain or lump in your tummy
  • Significant tiredness with no obvious reason

It is important to act on your symptoms and make an appointment with your GP.

What is bowel cancer screening?

Bowel cancer screening saves lives by early detection and also by preventing the development of cancer. Screening allows bowel cancer to be detected early before any symptoms occur, and potentially patients can be offered treatment which is more likely to be successful. Also, screening can find and remove non-cancerous polyps to reduce the risk of bowel cancer developing.

A faecal immunochemical test (FIT) kit is used for screening bowel cancer.
A faecal immunochemical test (FIT) kit is used for screening bowel cancer.

How does it work?

Currently, everyone aged 60-74 in England is automatically sent a bowel cancer screening kit in the post every two years. The screening kit used is the faecal immunochemical test (FIT) kit. It aims to detect tiny amounts of blood that may be present in your stool. The test, which is quick and easy to complete in the privacy of your own home, is returned to the bowel cancer screening centre for analysis. Depending on results, you may be invited for a colonoscopy to investigate further.

What happens at the colonoscopy?

This outpatient test is performed by a specialist at hospital and involves an examination of the large bowel using a flexible tube with a camera at one end. Currently, only six out of 10 people take the screening test. Increasing uptake has the potential to save more lives and it is important to encourage family and friends to take the test.

Mr Michael Powar holds specialist clinics covering a wide range of bowel conditions at Nuffield Health Cambridge Hospital, 4 Trumpington Road, Cambridge CB2 8AF. For more information, call 01223 370922 or visit nuffieldhealth.com/hospitals/cambridge.

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