Bowel Cancer: Reduce Your Risk

In September, the World Cancer Research Fund, as part of their Continuous Update Project, published a new report on the impact of lifestyle factors on risk of colorectal (bowel) cancer.

While it doesn’t get the same  media exposure as other types of cancer, the fact is that bowel cancer is the third most common type of newly diagnosed cancer in Australia and is Australia’s second biggest cancer killer. The good news is that it can be treated successfully in almost 90% of cases, if detected early.  There’s also a lot we can do to reduce our risk.

The new report reviewed all of the current scientific research available on diet, weight, physical activity and bowel cancer. This included almost 100 studies from around the world, involving more than 29 million adults and over 247,000 cases of colorectal cancer.

So what did they find?

According to the report, there is convincing evidence that:

  • Regular physical activity decreases the risk
  • Being overweight /carrying excess body fat increases the risk
  • Processed meats (those which are smoked, cured, salted or have chemical preservatives added) increase the risk
  • Having more than two alcoholic drinks per day increases the risk

They also found probable evidence that:

  • Eating more wholegrains and high fibre foods decreases the risk
  • Consuming dairy products decreases the risk
  • A higher calcium intake, from food or supplements (up to 1000mg/day), decreases the risk
  • Red meat (beef, pork, lamb and goat from domesticated animals) intake increases the risk

So what can you do to reduce your risk your risk of bowel cancer?

Maintain a healthy weight by eating a healthy diet and staying active.  If you are carrying excess weight, particularly around the middle, losing weight will reduce your risk.

Be active – include some regular planned exercise each day, look for ways to build in more incidental activity and try to reduce sitting time.

Eat a healthy diet based around high fibre plant-foods including minimally processed wholegrains, legumes, fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds.

Limit your intake of red meat and avoid processed meats. Also be careful how you cook your meat as charring increases cancer risk so casseroles, stews and stir-fries are better than BBQs and grills.  Marinating and keeping cooking temperatures low can help to reduce charring.  For some tasty meat-free recipe ideas, check out our Pinterest page.

Make sure you are consuming enough calcium, from diet (including dairy foods) and/or supplements.

If you drink alcohol, limit intake to 2 standard drinks, with a few alcohol-free days per week. See our previous post for tips on cutting down.

Don’t smoke.  Smoking increases the risk of bowel cancer and death from bowel cancer, and increases the chances of reoccurrence of cancer in those who have had surgery to remove bowel cancers.

Join the Bowel Movement!  Understand the risks, spread the word to others and take a bowel cancer screening test, especially if you are at risk.

Are you at risk?

 There are some factors that we can’t change (referred to as non-modifiable) which can increase the risk of bowel cancer. If any of these apply, it’s even more important that you have regular screening and are aware of the symptoms and the steps you can take to reduce your risk. 

  • Age -risk increases from the age of 50 – that’s why regular screening is recommended after your turn 50.
  • A family history of bowel cancer
  • A personal history of cancer of the colon, rectum, ovary, endometrium, or breast
  • A history of polyps in the colon
  • A history of ulcerative colitis (ulcers in the lining of the large intestine) or Crohn’s disease
  • Hereditary conditions, such as Familial Adenomatous Polyposis (FAP) and Hereditary Non-Polyposis Colon Cancer (HNPCC; Lynch Syndrome).

You can download a copy of Bowel Cancer Australia’s Bowel Cancer Risk and Screening Pathway here which helps you to understand your risk, what type of screening you need and how often.

Symptoms of bowel cancer:

These are the most common symptoms of bowel cancer:

  • A persistent change in your bowel habits
  • Blood in your bowel movement or rectal bleeding
  • A change in appearance of your bowel movements
  • Abdominal pain, especially if it is severe
  • Unexplained anaemia (iron deficiency) causing tiredness

While having these symptoms doesn’t mean you have bowel cancer, if you do experience them, it’s important to see your doctor urgently for further investigations. Remember, early detection is the key.

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