Five ways to reduce your risk from bowel cancer

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Some things get better with age – self-confidence, hair styling choices, cooking skills and (hopefully) your mortgage – but there are also some downsides.

Your risk of bowel cancer increases from the age of 50, but unlike wrinkles and your aged Van Halen tour t-shirt, there’s something you can do about it.   

Bowel cancer is one of Australia’s biggest cancer killers. In fact, nearly more Victorians die of bowel cancer each year than breast and prostate cancers combined. Yes, combined. And that is true for Australians more broadly.

But here’s the good news, because there is some. Dying from bowel cancer is preventable through early detection. In fact, if you catch it early, nearly 90 percent of cases can be successfully treated. 

So, how can you prevent bowel cancer? 

Do the screening test when it arrives at your home

It’s fair to say we live in a pretty good place where a bowel cancer test that could seriously save your life is posted to you for free. You don’t have to make an appointment and it’s not invasive like a Pap test. 

It’s simply mailed to you when you’re aged between 50-74, so you don’t even have to leave your house to get it done.

The problem is that only around 40 percent of Victorians, and 39 percent of Australians, do the test, which is a real waste because the test is easy to use and helps to detect cancer before you have any symptoms – when the chances of successful treatment are as high as 90 percent.

So, if you’ve received a test, do it. Find out if you’re eligible for the test and when it will arrive.

Eat the healthiest diet you can

Upping your fruit and vegetables, and cutting back on red and processed meats is important to reduce your risk of bowel cancer – research suggests that eating red and/or processed meats may increase your risk.

You don’t have to completely cut out red meat though, as Cancer Council recommends you stick to no more than three to four serves a week. However, you should limit processed meats, such as hotdogs, bacon, and ham.

Up your exercise and give up smoking

Getting active can reduce the risk of many cancers, particularly bowel cancer, because exercise can help to keep things moving inside, reducing contact with cancer-causing agents. The Cancer Council recommends one hour of moderate activity daily (brisk walk, medium-paced swimming, or cycling) or 30 minutes of vigorous activity (think huffing and puffing) to cut your cancer risk. 

Quitting smoking will reduce your risk not only of bowel cancer but 15 other types of cancer. You don’t have to do it alone – chat to the friendly folks at Quitline on 13 7848 or check out the website to see all your quitting options.

Know what symptoms to watch for

It may sound funny, but getting to know your bowel habits might save your life.

Symptoms to watch for include a change in your bowel habits, including diarrhoea, constipation or the feeling of incomplete emptying, thin bowel movements, blood in the stools, abdominal pain, bloating or cramping, anal or rectal pain, a lump in the anus or rectum, weight loss, fatigue, and unexplained anaemia.

If you have any of these symptoms, chat to your GP. 

Ask about your family history

Talk to your family members to find out as much as you can about your family’s history of bowel cancer. If one or more of your close family members (such as a parent or sibling) have had bowel cancer, it may increase your risk.

This is especially the case if they were diagnosed before the age of 55, or if there are two close relatives on the same side of your family with bowel cancer.

A family history of other cancers, such as endometrial cancer, may also increase your risk of developing bowel cancer.

There are two rare genetic conditions that occur in some families. These cause a small number (5–6 percent) of bowel cancers.

  • Familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP)– This condition causes hundreds of polyps to form in the bowel. If polyps caused by FAP are not removed, they may become cancerous.
  • Lynch syndrome– Previously known as hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC), this syndrome is characterised by a fault in the gene that helps the cell’s DNA repair itself. Having Lynch syndrome increases the risk of developing bowel cancer and other cancers.

If you are concerned about your family risk factors, talk to your doctor about having regular check-ups or ask for a referral to a family cancer clinic.

For more info on bowel cancer visit the Cancer Council Victoria and remember, when you receive the free home test in the mail, do it.

Unfortunately, there’s no cure for bad haircuts or fading band t-shirts!

Have you done your free bowel cancer test yet? Was it easy to use?

Cancer Council Victoria Are you 50 or over?  Do the free test when it’s sent to your home. It could save your life.