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Understanding bowel cancer

The bowel is part of the digestive system whose purpose is to absorb water, nutrients and energy from food you eat and pass out remaining waste products from the body in the form of stools. Bowel cancer (also known as colorectal, rectal or colon cancer, depending on where the cancer develops) is a condition where abnormal growths of cells affect the lining of the bowel, causing severe health problems.

Some facts about bowel cancer

Bowel cancer is the third most common type of cancer in the UK after lung cancer and breast cancer. Put together, the three most cancers in the country account for over half (54%) of all new cancer cases. However, approximately 72% of bowel cancer cases develop in people aged 65 years or over. Bowel cancer rarely occurs in people under 40 years. A third of bowel cancers develop in the rectum while the remaining two-thirds of cases develop in the colon.

In 2009, 41,142 new cases of bowel cancer were diagnosed in both males and females across the UK. 18,431 cases were reported in women, making bowel cancer the most common cancer in women after breast cancer; and, 22,711 cases were reported in men, making bowel cancer the third most common cancer in men after prostrate and lung cancer.

One in 19 women and one in 15 men develop bowel cancer.

Symptoms of bowel cancer

The symptoms of bowel cancer are not easily identifiable because they are often less life-threatening complaints like irritable bowel syndrome and haemorrhoids and there is usually no pain involved. Persistent loss of appetite, lack of energy, constipation, diarrhea, blood in the faeces, a lump in the lower abdomen or other irregularities may, however, indicate development of the cancer.

If you notice any irregularities, especially when you go to the toilet like how it feels when you pass stool, seek immediate medical attention.

Diagnosis of bowel cancer

A general practitioner will examine you to diagnose bowel cancer, which may include a rectal examination to feel for any swelling or lumps in your back passage. The doctor will also ask some questions about your symptoms and may refer you to a specialist for further bowel cancer tests, such as a colonoscopy or barium enema. Treatment commences immediately diagnosis is confirmed.

Treatment of bowel cancer

Bowel cancer treatment can involve a combination of surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy and sometimes biological therapy. Similar to most types of cancers, the chances of a complete cure depends upon how early the cancer was diagnosed.

If diagnosed in its early stages of development, a complete cure is possible and chances of surviving a further five years is 90%. However, when a diagnosis is confirmed when the cancer is in its most advanced stage the chances of surviving a further five years is 6% and a complete cure is unlikely.

Everyone is strongly advised to go for regular bowel cancer screening to increase the chances of catching the cancer before it is too late, especially for the elderly members of society who are most at risk.

For more information visit the NHS website at cancerscreening.nhs.uk.

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