Bowel Cancer: facts everyone should know

After lung cancer, bowel cancer (the collective term for cancer of the colon and cancer of the rectum) is the biggest cancer killer in most parts of the world. Bowel cancer is a problem that is growing yearly. The main cause? Diet. The evidence clearly shows a link between the consumption of meat (especially fatty meat) and the incidence of bowel cancer.

(Traditionally, Japan has had the lowest incidence of bowel cancer in the world. This was probably due to their low fat and high fibre diet. But in recent years, since a Western diet has been introduced into Japan, bowel cancer amongst the Japanese has risen.)

The Colon

The colon (also known as the large intestine) consists of four parts: the ascending colon, transverse colon, descending colon and the sigmoid colon.

The colon's main function is to absorb electrolytes and water from undigested food received from the ileum (small intestine). As it travels through the colon, the undigested food slowly forms into semi-solid faeces. The faeces then makes their way towards the rectum (the last part of the intestine) and stay there until defecation.

The colon makes up approximately the first 6 feet of the large intestine and the rectum makes up around the last 8-10 inches.

What Is Bowel Cancer?

Bowel cancer is a malignant (life-threatening) tumour that has developed either in the colon or in the rectum or in both.

Cancer of the colon and cancer of the rectum are sometimes referred to collectively as colo-rectal cancer but most people know them both under the generic name `bowel cancer'.

Studies have shown that most colorectal cancers begin as a polyp, which over a period of years, becomes malignant. A polyp is a non-malignant growth of tissue from the intestinal wall which protrudes into the intestine. Not all polyps turn into cancer of course, but having polyps does increase your risk of developing cancer. Polyps can sometimes be inherited and there is a hereditary condition known as familial polyposis which can inevitably increase your chances of developing bowel cancer.

Your Risk Of Developing Bowel Cancer Increases With:

* Age. Your risk of developing cancer of the bowel rises after the age of 40.
* A family or a personal history of bowel cancer or of familial polyposis. If this applies to you, then you should take extra care when it comes to looking after your health. (If a close relative developed bowel cancer before the age of 50, then you have a slightly greater risk than average of developing the disease. But don't worry too much as there is plenty you can do to help protect yourself against getting bowel cancer).
* Ulcerative colitis, Crohn's disease and other inflammatory bowel diseases. People with any of these conditions have a higher risk than average of developing bowel cancer. * A diet high in fat, especially animal fat. If you consume lots of meat, greasy foods or dairy produce then you are markedly increasing your chances of getting cancer of the bowel.
* Lack of exercise. You should take regular, gentle exercise to decrease your chances of developing the disease. Strenuous exercise has been shown to have no additional benefit whatsoever.
* Obesity. Studies have shown that excess fat can influence the metabolism to increase cell growth in the colon and in the rectum.
* Smoking.
* Alcohol taken in excess. Alcohol is responsible for many illnesses so it is wise, therefore, to drink in moderation.
* A diet low in fibre. Try eating more fresh fruit and vegetables which are high in fibre. Besides, fresh fruit and vegetables are known to contain protective qualities which can help prevent against the development of cancer.

If you are exposed to any of the risk factors above, it doesn't mean to say that you are going to go on to develop bowel cancer. However, if any of the above risk factors do apply to you, then it is only sensible to take better care of your health. You might want to discuss preventative measures with your doctor, especially if you have a family or a personal history of bowel cancer or of familial polyps, or if you suffer from ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease.

Remember, if caught early enough, bowel cancer can be cured. Some people feel embarrassed about discussing bowel problems with their doctor. By the time the patient seeks medical advice because he or she cannot cope any longer with his or her symptoms, it can sometimes be too late. Be sensible; don't die of embarrassment.

Symptoms Of Bowel Cancer May Include:

* A recent change in bowel habits which has persisted for more than 10 days such as: constipation, diarrhoea or a feeling that the bowel hasn't emptied properly.
* Weight loss for no known reason.
* Bloating or pain and tenderness in the lower abdomen.
* Black, tarry stools (be aware that certain medications such as iron tablets can cause the stools to turn black).
* Going to the toilet more often than usual.
* Anaemia.
* Pain in the rectum which may make sitting down uncomfortable.
* Either bright red or very dark blood on the toilet paper or in your stools (certain foods such as beetroot can cause redness in the stools which can look like blood loss).
* Defecation may be painful.
* Loss of bowel control.
* Changes in the shape of your stools, especially if they are narrow or pipe-like.
* Vomiting.
* Constant fatigue.

What You Can Do To Help Protect Yourself From Bowel Cancer

1. Nothing is more important for your health than eating a healthy balanced diet. You should cut out meat and fatty foods from your diet. If you can't stop eating meat or fatty foods then you should at least cut down on the amount you normally consume. You should also cut down on dairy produce and refined carbohydrates such as sugar in your diet. Eat plenty of wholegrain foods, fresh fruit and vegetables, especially cabbage, broccoli and Brussels sprouts. Vegetables tend to lose their goodness when they're cooked; lightly steaming vegetables is better as it tends to keep some of the goodness in. Lycopene, a chemical which is found in tomatoes is supposed to have powerful anti-cancer protective qualities, but the benefits can only be gained by cooking the tomatoes.

2. If you don't take much exercise, then you should start exercising more. Walking is good exercise. You should aim to exercise a couple of times a week but you must do it in moderation (you should always consult your doctor before taking-up any form of exercise).

3. If you're overweight, then you should try and slim down. Following the above guidelines should help you to lose weight.

4. If you smoke, then you ought to give it up if you want to decrease your chances of getting bowel cancer or any kind of cancer.

5. If you drink alcohol in excess, then cut down.

And finally...

Remember, if caught early enough, bowel cancer can be cured. Some people feel embarrassed about discussing bowel problems with their doctor. By the time the patient seeks medical advice because he or she cannot cope any longer with his or her symptoms,it can sometimes be too late. Be sensible; don't die of embarrassment.

This article is taken from a much longer chapter in `How To Conquer Health Problems Between Ages 50 and 120' which is written by Vernon Coleman and Donna Antoinette Coleman and published in 2004 by EMJ books. The chaper on bowel cancer also includes material dealing with tests and treatment. The book, price 15.99 is available from Publishing House in the usual ways or from all good bookshops and libraries. (See the webshop on this website for on-line purchase.)

Note: For those still in doubt about the link between eating meat and developing cancer Vernon Coleman's book `Food for Thought' contains all the evidence you're likely to need to persuade yourself. The book contains 24 pages summarising the scientific evidence showing that meat causes cancer while a diet rich in fruit and vegetables helps to minimise cancer risk.

Copyright Vernon Coleman 2003