Getting behind bowel cancer awareness

With next month being Bowel Cancer Awareness month, we thought we’d take a closer look at what bowel cancer is and how you can best prevent it.

What is Bowel Cancer?
Bowel cancer, also known as colorectal cancer, claims the lives of over 80 people every week. Australia has one of the highest rates of bowel cancer in the world and 1 in 13 Australians will develop the disease in their lifetime.
It develops when cells in the bowel lining grow too quickly, forming a clump known as a polyp or adenoma. While most polyps are usually benign, or non-cancerous, most bowel cancers form from these tiny growths, which can continue to grow for several years before changing and becoming cancerous. If left untreated, the cancer can spread to other areas of the body.
The good news, however, is that bowel cancer is one of the most treatable types of cancer. If detected early, up to 90% of bowel cancers can be treated successfully.


What are the symptoms?
During the early stages of the disease, there can often be no signs or symptoms present. Because of this, the Australian Government introduced the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program in 2006, to help reduce illness and death from the disease through early detection.


During later stages of the disease, the following symptoms can be indicators of bowel cancer:

  • Blood in the stool or rectal bleeding.
  • A recent, persistent change in bowel habit (for example, diarrhoea or constipation).
  • A change in the shape or appearance of bowel movements (for example, more narrow than usual).
  • Abdominal pain or swelling.
  • Pain or lump in the anus or rectum.
  • Unexplained tiredness or rapid weight loss (signs of anaemia).
  • Feeling that the bowel has not emptied completely after a bowel movement.

If you experience any of these symptoms for more than 2 weeks, it is recommended that you visit your General Practitioner (GP) for further investigation.

Risk Factors
Bowel cancer affects both men and women.

​The risk factors for bowel cancer can be broken down into two main categories – those that can be changed (modifiable) and those that can’t (non-modifiable).
Modifiable risk factors include:

  • Being overweight.
  • Being physically inactive.
  • Having a poor diet – one which is high in red and processed meats, fried food and alcohol but low in fruits, vegetable and whole grains.
  • Smoking.

These risk factors can all be addressed through changes to your diet and lifestyle. Your GP can assist you with any health concerns you have regarding your diet and overall health and wellbeing. The WA Department of Health’s Healthy WA website also provides a range of useful information on eating well and leading a healthy lifestyle. 
Non-modifiable risk factors include:

  • Being aged 50 and over.
  • Having an existing inflammatory bowel disease, such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.
  • Having previous non-cancerous tumours in the bowel.
  • Having a strong family history of bowel cancer or polyps.

While these risk factors cannot be changed, it’s important to tell your GP if these risk factors apply to you and you have any concerns about developing the disease. 

How can I reduce my risk of developing bowel cancer?
There are a number of ways to help reduce your risk of developing bowel cancer.​

1. Take the test
Australia’s National Bowel Cancer Screening Program invites eligible people between 50-74 years of age to regularly screen for bowel cancer using a free, simple test at home.

The test is able to detect blood, difficult to detect with the naked eye, which is one possible symptom of bowel cancer. While a positive result means blood has been detected in the sample, it does not mean that bowel cancer is present. It does, however, require further investigation by your GP.


​A negative result means no blood has been detected in the samples, and no further action will be required. It’s  important to remember, however, that a negative test result is no guarantee that a person will not develop bowel cancer and, as such, those aged between 50-74 are encouraged to take the test every two years. You should also talk to your GP immediately if you develop symptoms after getting a negative result.
For those outside the age bracket for screenings through the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program, a BowelScreen Australia screening test can be purchased from participating pharmacies or through Bowel Cancer Australia by contacting their Helpline on 1800 555 494.


2. Adopt a healthy diet and lifestyle
Remember the modifiable risk factors we mentioned earlier? These are the things that are in your control and can be changed. It includes doing such things as:

  • Eating a healthy diet containing lots of fruits, vegetable, calcium and whole grains and limiting your intake of red and processed meats, and fried foods.
  • Being physically active and maintaining a healthy weight.
  • Giving up smoking, if you are a smoker.
  • Limiting your alcohol intake to less than 2 standard drinks a day.

3. Know your risk factors
Knowing your risk factors and monitoring your own health are important tools in the early detection of bowel cancer. If you notice any symptoms or have concerns relating to bowel cancer, speak to your GP to discuss your concerns.

Appointments with GPs at Illawarra Medical Centre can be made by booking online or contacting us on (08) 9208 6400.

Where can I find out more information?
For more information, visit: