Beating bowel cancer
PUBLISHED: 10:00 27 January 2016
Cases of bowel cancer are on the rise, but treatments are also becoming more successful in recent years
Bowel cancer, otherwise known as colorectal cancer, is becoming more common. There has been a 6% increase in cases over the last decade and in 2011, more than 41,000 people were diagnosed with the disease in the UK.
One possible cause for this rise could be the association between bowel cancer and poor Western diet that is low in fibre and high in processed meats and fat.
However, Matthew Hanson, a consultant colorectal surgeon at the private Harley Street at Queen’s facility in Romford, says most cases are sporadic.
‘There is a degree of inheritance in around a third of cases, but the number of cases specifically caused by inherited genes is quite small,’ he explains.
While the number of people developing bowel cancer has been increasing, the number dying of it is dramatically declining. The five year survival rate has doubled over the past 40 years, according to Cancer Research UK figures.
Part of this is due to better detection. TV advertising has highlighted the need to be vigilant for symptoms such as rectal bleeding and people aged 60 to 69 are now offered screening for the disease using a faecal occult blood test (stool sample kits sent through the post to check for minute samples of blood). Those over 70 can also request kits.
‘One problem with bowel cancer is that sometimes there are no or few symptoms until the disease is at a relatively late stage, which is why the faecal occult blood testing is so important in detecting microscopic particles of blood, long before bleeding from the bottom is apparent,’ says Mr Hanson.
‘If you do have bleeding from the rear end then it is more likely to be caused by something simple like haemorrhoids. But it can be a sign of cancer, so it should never be ignored.’
Other possible symptoms of bowel cancer are anaemia or persistent change in bowel habits. ‘Normally, it is more concerning if the stools are persistently looser than if someone has persistent constipation,’ Mr Hanson explains.
If someone is suspected of having bowel cancer, they will often be offered a colonoscopy – where a tiny camera is inserted into the colon to examine for any growths. At the same time, biopsies can be taken. If a tumour is detected the outlook is much brighter than it once was.
‘Bowel cancer is eminently treatable,’ says Mr Hanson. ‘A lot, of course, depends on the stage at which the cancer is caught, but there is always hope for patients.
‘Several years ago there was concern that the outcome for colorectal surgery in the UK was not as good as it was in Europe and the USA, but the screening programme and improved waiting times means people are being identified with earlier stages of the disease.’
Even with advanced disease, surgeons can now remove tumours that have spread from the bowel to the liver or lungs. Drug treatments have also improved, making the outlook much brighter especially for those with advanced bowel cancer.
Mr Hansen adds: ‘I would urge anyone offered screening to take it – it really can save lives.’
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