Amid the national crisis the country is currently living through as a result of coronavirus (COVID-19), it should not be forgotten that April is Bowel Cancer Awareness Month, with Cumbernauld Community Health Information Hub taking the opportunity to highlight the importance of bowel cancer screening.
The flagship campaign of the charity Bowel Cancer UK, the month aims to raise awareness of bowel cancer and generate valuable funds to research a cure and better treatments for the disease, as well as encouraging people to get checked for any symptoms at the early possible stage.
The fourth most common cancer in the UK, around 42,000 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer in the UK every year. In total, there are more than 268,000 people across the country living with bowel cancer today.
Despite these alarming statistics, knowledge about the condition and recognition of the importance of bowel cancer screen testing is perhaps not as high profile as it could or should be, particularly where older people are concerned.
More than nine out of ten new cases are diagnosed in people aged over 50, with nearly six out of ten cases being diagnosed in people aged 70 or above. However, bowel cancer can affect anyone of any age, and more than 2,500 new cases are also diagnosed each year in people under the age of 50.
It is a treatable and curable form of cancer if diagnosed early, and nearly everyone survives bowel cancer if they receive diagnosis at the earliest stage. But recovery rates can drop notably as the disease develops, so early diagnosis is critical. Mary McNeil, Development Manager at Cornerstone House Centre, remarked:
“During Bowel Cancer Awareness Month last year, Cumbernauld Community Health Information Hub worked in partnership with Bowel Cancer UK to host a successful Cumbernauld Bowel Cancer Awareness Event which brought the subject of bowel cancer into focus in the local area.
“Whilst we are disappointed that due to coronavirus (COVID-19) restrictions we are unable to host a similar awareness raising event this month, Cumbernauld Community Health Information Hub continues to fully support the work of Bowel Cancer UK and the overall fight against this dreadful disease.
“Hundreds of people with bowel cancer in the greater Cumbernauld area are currently facing weeks of social isolation because the risk of coronavirus to them is so serious. These are worrying and lonely days for these people and today we stand together in support with and for them.
“That’s why Bowel Cancer Awareness Month is so important, providing us with an excellent opportunity to spotlight this illness with a view to initiating screen tests and prevention for more people in the local area.”
BOWEL CANCER: AN OVERVIEW AND KEY INFORMATION GUIDE
What is Bowel Cancer?
The bowel is part of the digestive system, made up of the small bowel (small intestine) and the large bowel (colon and rectum). Bowel cancer, also called colorectal cancer, is a general term for a cancer which affects the large bowel.
The cells in the body normally divide and grow in a controlled way. When cancer develops, the cells change and can grow in an uncontrolled way. Cancer cells may stay in the bowel or as with many forms of cancer they might spread to other parts of the body, like the liver or lungs.
Most bowel cancers develop from pre-cancerous growths, called polyps. But not all polyps develop into cancer. If your doctor finds any polyps, he or she can remove them to prevent them becoming cancerous.
What are the Symptoms of Bowel Cancer?
Bowel cancer symptoms can be subtle and do not necessarily make a person feel ill. The symptoms can be variable and generally affect the stomach, bowel and back passage areas. It is also possible to experience some other more generic bodily symptoms.
Common symptoms of bowel cancer include a persistent change in bowel habit (such as pooing more often with looser, runnier poos and sometimes abdominal pain), blood in the poo or bleeding from the back passage, abdominal pain or discomfort always brought on by eating, unexplained weight loss, extreme tiredness for no obvious reason and pain or a lump in the stomach area.
Because the warning signs of bowel cancer are like those of some more common conditions, if you have any of these symptoms it does not ordinarily mean you have bowel cancer. It’s more likely they’re caused by something less serious, such as irritable bowel syndrome, piles, anal fissures, constipation or diarrhoea. It is, however, very important not to simply ignore these symptoms.
What Should I Do If I Suspect Any of the Above Signs?
Make an appointment with your GP as soon as possible if you have any concerns in relation to the above signs or symptoms. Remember, the sooner you get checked out the better things will be, either in terms of putting your mind at rest or getting the right treatment.
A GP may do a physical examination of the stomach and of the bottom area at the appointment, including a digital rectal examination. This will enable them to feel for any swelling or lumps in the stomach or back passage area. Whilst this test can be uncomfortable and many people find an examination of their bottom a bit embarrassing, it is a routine test and takes less than a minute to carry out.
A blood test may be ordered by the GP to check for iron deficiency anaemia. Although most people with bowel cancer do not have symptoms of anaemia, they may lack iron as a result of bleeding from the cancer.
If they’re not sure what’s causing the symptoms, the GP may order a further test at a local hospital called a flexible sigmoidoscopy. This is an examination of your back passage and some of your large bowel using a device called a sigmoidoscope, which will take internal camera images of the bowel and can also be used to take biopsies. In some cases a more evasive test such as a colonoscopy or a CT colonoscopy may be ordered.
If any abnormalities are found, you may be referred to a specialist consultant for further tests, investigations and advice.
Ignoring symptoms or trying to self-diagnose is not recommended under any circumstances. It’s always sensible to see a GP if you are having symptoms, no matter how bothersome or not.
What are the Causes of Bowel Cancer and How Can I Minimise My Risk?
It’s not fully understood what causes most bowel cancers, but a number of risk factors for developing the disease have been identified.
Risk factors for bowel cancer include age (it mainly affects people aged 50 or over although it can happen in younger people too), a strong family history of bowel cancer, a history of non-cancerous growths (polyps) in the bowel, longstanding inflammatory bowel conditions such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis and having a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes.
Making some lifestyle changes can notably reduce the risk of bowel cancer. Changes can include stopping smoking, eating a healthy diet, being physically active, keeping to a healthy weight and following recommended alcohol guidelines.
What is Bowel Cancer Screening and Should I Get It?
Bowel cancer screening can save lives. Screening aims to detect bowel cancer at an early stage, when treatment has the best chance of working.
In Scotland, those aged 50 and over are invited to take part in bowel cancer screening by the NHS. This involves individuals taking a simple home test which looks for hidden blood in the poo every two years. The test can also find polyps (non-cancerous growths), which might develop into cancer. Polyps can usually be removed to lower the risk of bowel cancer.
If you are registered with a GP and aged 50-74, a test kit should automatically be posted out to you every two years. If you are aged 75 or over, you can ask for a bowel cancer screening test by calling the free bowel screening centre helpline on 0800 0121 833.
Further information on bowel cancer screening can be obtained by clicking here. There can be both pros and cons to screening, and individuals can discuss any concerns they have with their GP before proceeding with a test.
As at the time of publishing this article (April 2020), bowel cancer screening in Scotland has been temporarily paused due to the rapidly changing situation with coronavirus.
Treatment Options and Living With Bowel Cancer
If you do receive a bowel cancer diagnosis, treatment will depend on which part of your bowel is affected and how far it has spread. Surgery is usually the main treatment for bowel cancer, and may be combined with chemotherapy, radiotherapy or biological treatments, depending on the person’s particular case.
The aim of treatment is to cure the cancer, if possible. If it’s detected early enough, treatment can cure bowel cancer and stop it coming back, hence why an early diagnosis is so important.
If the cancer is too advanced to be cured, treatment aims to relieve symptoms and control and slow the cancer for as long as possible. Those diagnosed are cared for by a team of NHS healthcare professionals who are experts in creating treatment and support plans for individuals with bowel cancer.
Usually, a range of national awareness and fundraising events and activities would be organised during Bowel Cancer Awareness Month. This year, because of coronavirus restrictions and the particularly vulnerable position this places those with bowel cancer and their loved ones in, individuals are asked to show their support online by joining #teambowelcancer.
People can also get behind the fight against bowel cancer by donating to or volunteering with organisations such as Bowel Cancer UK, Cancer Research UK, Macmillan Cancer Support, Cancer Support Scotland and Maggie’s Lanarkshire, to name just a few.
Detailed information about bowel cancer can be acquired by visiting Bowel Cancer UK’s website at www.bowelcanceruk.org.uk. The organisation’s Scotland Team can be contacted by telephoning 0131 285 3846 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Furthermore, if you are concerned about bowel cancer or bowel problems, you can email one of Bowel Cancer UK’s specialist nurses. General information about bowel cancer is also available on the NHS’s bowel cancer web page. Advice on coronavirus for people with cancer can be obtained by clicking here.