Bowel cancer: what you should know

Dr Jim Jackson / 08 Aug, 2019

Bowel cancer diagnosis and treatment

Did you know that bowel cancer is the second most common cancer in both men and women in Australia? It’s the diagnosis that no one wants to hear, yet Australia has one of the highest rates of bowel cancer in the world.

Bowel cancer affects both men and women and your risk of bowel cancer greatly increases as you get older. It’s estimated by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare that this year, 1 in 14 Australians will be diagnosed with bowel cancer by their 85th birthday.

Most people who develop bowel cancer have no family history. That’s why it’s so important to know the signs and symptoms of bowel cancer and participate in bowel cancer screening. In Australia we’re fortunate to have the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program, which sends a free screening kit to every eligible Australian in the mail from your 50th birthday. The test is quick and easy and you can complete it at home. Bowel cancer screening should be completed every two years between the ages of 50 and 74.

Not everyone experiences symptoms of bowel cancer, but some common symptoms include:

  • Sudden changes in bowel motions, such as diarrhoea, constipation, having narrower stools or stools that contain mucus
  • Unexplained weight loss or loss of appetite
  • Bright red or dark blood in your stool or on your toilet paper
  • Pain in your stomach with or without swelling
  • A lump or pain around the anus
  • Constant gas or bloating in the bowel or rectum
  • Unexplained anaemia (low iron) making you feel tired and breathless

If you experience any of these symptoms, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have bowel cancer, but I would encourage you to see your GP and tell them about what you’ve been experiencing.

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You might be referred to a specialist to further investigate if you have bowel cancer and guide you to appropriate treatment.

There are many different treatments for bowel cancer. 90% of people with bowel cancer in Australia can be successfully treated if the disease is diagnosed in its early stages.

Treatment for bowel cancer depends on many factors, such as where your cancer is located and how large the tumour is, if it has spread, what your treatment preferences are, and your fitness and general health.

The main types of treatments for bowel cancer are surgery (which includes removing all or part of the cancer-affected bowel), radiation therapy, chemotherapy, cryosurgery, radiofrequency ablation and targeted therapies.

You may have heard of two of the more common forms of cancer treatment, radiation therapy and chemotherapy.

Chemotherapy is the use of anti-cancer drugs to destroy cancer cells.

It’s typically provided as an outpatient at a day hospital and works by destroying all rapidly dividing cells. However, some healthy cells are also damaged which causes many of the more common side effects of chemotherapy (such as hair loss, nausea and vomiting, fatigue, diarrhoea or constipation and loss of appetite).

Unlike chemotherapy, radiation therapy doesn’t have the same amount of side effects – but it isn’t suitable for every bowel cancer diagnosis.

Radiation therapy, or radiotherapy, is the use of radiation to safely treat and manage cancer. Radiation oncologists use radiation to eradicate cancer cells, reduce their growth or relieve symptoms of cancer.

Radiation therapy works by damaging cancer cells while limiting the impact to healthy cells. When a small dose of radiation is given each day over several weeks, normal cells can recover from the radiation, but cancer cells cannot. It is typically a painless treatment, similar to having an x-ray, and is only delivered to the part of the body being treated.

Although these treatments are more common, bowel cancer isn’t treated with a one-size-fits-all approach and requires a multidisciplinary team of doctors and specialists to design a treatment plan that’s specific to you.

Above all, it’s important to prioritise your health and listen to your body. Take advantage of the cancer screening opportunities, pay attention to your general wellbeing and regularly check in with your GP.

Dr Jim Jackson is a Radiation Oncologist at Icon Gold Coast Private and Icon North Lakes.

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