April is Bowel Cancer Awareness Month, and there's never been a more important time to discuss this issue. Bowel cancer has been in the news recently, following the passing of actress and TV presenter, Lynda Bellingham.
Lynda was best known as the 'Oxo' mum on British TV and was mourned by the nation when news of her death was announced in October 2014. It's worth noting that her life could've been saved if she'd been given a simple test, as her cancer went undetected for 18 months.
Lynda's high profile case increased awareness about the importance of getting regular checks for bowel cancer, including a colonoscopy to evaluate the inside of the colon if necessary.
Many people are unsure about how the bowel does what it does. By understanding how the bowel works in conjunction with the colon, it becomes easier to know how to help prevent and detect serious health problems.
The bowel is an integral part of the digestive system, allowing food to pass out of the stomach into the small bowel, where nutrients are absorbed into the body. Any undigested food then moves into the large bowel where water is removed from the waste matter. The waste is held within the rectum and this leaves the body in bowel movements, i.e. as poo or faeces.
Around 16,000 people in the UK die of bowel cancer every year, making it the second biggest cancer killer. The condition starts in the large bowel, colon and rectum and has various symptoms, so learning what to look out for is of paramount importance. Bowel cancers usually develop from polyps and while normally non-cancerous, they can be removed easily when caught early.
Bowel cancer, also known as colorectal, colon or rectal cancer, usually begins in the large bowel, occurs when the cells start multiplying out of control and invade the surrounding tissue, spreading to other areas of the body. Cancer often develops from a type of polyps, or small growth, inside the bowel, although most polyps are not cancerous.
Symptoms associated with this condition include bleeding from the bottom or blood in the poo, changes in bowel habits that can last for 3 weeks or longer, unexplained weight loss, extreme tiredness for no apparent reason and a pain or a lump in the tummy region.
If you're worried that you are experiencing any of these symptoms then it's important to seek the advice as soon as possible.
The exact cause of bowel cancer is unknown, however there are steps you can take to monitor and reduce your risk.
Genetics - Those with a relative, particularly in their immediate family, who has been diagnosed are encourage to seek testing for the condition as there is a genetic factor. In 25% of cases there is some family history of the condition.
Age - 95% of bowel cancer cases occur in adults aged over 50, that's why screening is available for people aged 60 and over in England and Wales (50 in Scotland). However cases are becoming more common among younger age groups as well, possibly due to changing lifestyles.
Bowel diseases – Those with chronic inflammatory bowel problems, such as Crohn's Disease or Ulcerative Colitis, may be at increase risk of bowel cancer. This also goes for people who have had polyps removed in the past.
Lifestyle – An inactive lifestyle, a diet low in fruit and veg and high in meat, smoking and drinking alcohol to excess can all increase your risk.
Remember, it's better to face a bit of embarrassment than to leave the condition to get worse. If you're at all concerned that you might have symptoms of bowel cancer, ensure you speak to your doctor as soon as possible. When caught early, there is a much higher chance of making a full recovery from this condition.
For more information on Bowel Cancer Awareness Month, visit Bowel Cancer UK.