Bowel Cancer

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Bowel cancer is the third most common cancer in the UK, and usually develops from growths inside the bowel called polyps. These start as benign (harmless) swellings inside the bowel, but in certain circumstances they can develop into full blown cancer requiring radical treatment. It is not clear exactly what causes these polyps to grow and become cancerous, but there are some factors that are associated with an increased risk of the disease

  • A family history of bowel cancer – your GP can help determine if yours puts you at risk
  • Some genetic conditions related to bowel polyps
  • Inflammatory bowel disease including Ulcerative Colitis or Crohn’s disease
  • Poor diet (see later)
  • Lack of exercise and being overweight
  • Diabetes

However, as bowel cancer is so common in the UK it is very possible to develop the condition even if you do not have any of the above issues, so it is important to report any possible symptoms of bowel cancer to your GP. The most common symptoms of bowel cancer are:

  • Blood in your faeces
  • Persistent change in your bowel habit for several weeks
  • Unexplained weight loss or appetite loss
  • Tiredness or shortness of breath due to associated anaemia
  • Abdominal pain or swelling

If you do have any of the above then please make it a priority to visit your GP as soon as reasonably possible. All of these symptoms can be caused by other, harmless conditions so try not to be too concerned, but it remains advisable to have the obvious checks. Your doctor will want to examine you – and be warned, this will probably include an examination of your back passage, but this isn’t as bad as it sounds and only takes a few seconds! – and arrange some routine blood tests, particularly checking for anaemia which frequently occurs alongside bowel cancer because the polyps tend to bleed slightly. If your symptoms are in any way suspicious and/or you have the type of anaemia associated with bowel cancer (iron deficiency anaemia) then your GP will probably refer you to a bowel specialist for further assessment.

Tests for bowel cancer include having a camera inserted into the back passage, known as a sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy depending on how far in the instrument goes, and an Xray known as a barium enema. If your specialist does find a polyp that looks like it may be cancerous then they will want to take a biopsy (sample of it) to send to the local laboratory for analysis and you may need further scans to determine whether or not any cancer has spread to other parts of your body.

If a polyp is confirmed as having turned into cancer then there are various options available to you including a combination of fairly major surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and medication depending on the exact location and extent of your condition. I am being deliberately vague about this because you are best advised by your specialist who knows you in this situation. I am afraid that I need to be equally vague about your chance of a cure, as this ranges from pretty good to frankly not great depending on your individual circumstances – what is certain is that you have a much better chance of a cure if the disease is in the early stages so don’t delay that visit to your GP if you think one is necessary.

So that’s the potentially bad news. As with most medical conditions, there is also good news in that there is a lot that you can do to minimise your risk of developing bowel cancer:


One of the most important is to maintain your body weight in the normal range, for most people that is a Body Mass Index between 20 and 25, although there are circumstances in which a BMI outside this range can be appropriate. It will come as no surprise to most of you that the other changes revolve around diet, exercise and smoking!


It’s very simple – smoking is associated with so many types of cancer that it would be difficult to list them here, but bowel cancer is definitely one of them. If you smoke, quit and quit now!


Research has shown that exercise independently reduces the risk of developing bowel cancer. What this means is that it is not because exercise reduces your weight or improves your diabetes (which it does), but that there is something about exercise in and of itself that reduces bowel cancer risk, and the more exercise you do the lower your risk. Aiming for the current Government recommendation of 30 minutes of aerobic exercise five times a week will take you well on your way to avoiding bowel cancer – ‘aerobic’ doesn’t have to mean sweating in a leotard, it simply means a sustained activity that is intensive enough to keep you slightly out of breath for the duration. Brisk walking would be a good start if you are not confident enough to take on anything more strenuous. Whatever it takes, just get moving!


It has been estimated that 30% of cancers in the UK could be avoided by eating a healthy diet and bowel cancer is one of the cancers in which some of the biggest effects could be seen. There are certain foods that have been linked with an increased risk of bowel cancer, and these include processed meats and red meat in particular so it is worth reducing your consumption of those. However, the most important dietary change when it comes to reducing bowel cancer risk is to eat large quantities of so-called ‘protective’ foods, namely high fibre foods ( wholegrain bread, cereals, pasta and rice etc), fruit, vegetables and oily fish. Vitamin D has been shown to be protective against bowel cancer, so if you are particularly concerned then it would also be worth investing in a good quality multivitamin and mineral supplement.

To summarise, do continue your Fit For Life Forever journey, it will bring you so many more benefits beyond the weight loss that most of us want when we think about diet and exercise! And if you want to avoid bowel cancer then please also consider stopping smoking, increasing your activity levels and eating a ‘protective’ diet – all of these things are so beneficial in so many other ways, your body will thank you for it!

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