As the second deadliest cancer in Australia, bowel cancer claims the lives of 5,336 Australians every year (103 a week), including 272 people under the age of 50. It’s the deadliest cancer for young people aged 25-34 years and tends to be diagnosed late when cancer has spread and is harder to treat.
According to Continence Foundation of Australia, 1 in 20 Aussies have a bowel control program, and bowel cancer is the fourth most commonly diagnosed cancer in Australia. But it seems many of us know don’t know enough about bowel health.
So what is it? And why is it so important?
The bowel is a tube-like organ which is part of the digestive tract - starting at the stomach and going through to your bottom (anus).
The bowel has two distinct sections: the small bowel (which itself has three sections: the duodenum, jejunum and ileum) and the large bowel known as the colon.
The digestive tract breaks down and absorbs nutrients from the food and fluids you eat and drink, which is then used to fuel your body’s functions. The digestive system works by pushing food through the bowels - which usually takes between 24 to 72 hours.
As the food passes from one part of the bowel to another, it stays long enough for the fluids and nutrients to be absorbed into your body or expelled as waste through the anus. This waste is called faeces, bowel motions, stools or ‘poo’.
Whilst the Continence Foundation of Australia describes good bowel health as ‘being regular’, normal bowel function can be different for everyone.
The key goal is to have soft, but well-formed bowel motions that are easily passed, anywhere from 1-3 times a day to 3 times a week. Not everybody has a bowel motion every day, and that is entirely normal.
However, bowel disorders, including bowel cancer, can cause changes in a person’s bowel habits. It is important to recognise when your bowel habits have changed, and see your GP immediately.
Some warning signs include:
- A recent, persistent change in bowel habit
- A change in shape or appearance of your poo
- Blood in your poo or rectal bleeding
- Frequent gas pain, cramps
- Unexplained anaemia
- A feeling that the bowel has not emptied completely after going to the toilet
- Pain or a lump in the anus or rectum
- Abdominal pain or swelling
Bowel disorders include:
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Crohn's disease
- Coeliac disease, and
- Interstinal obstuction
If you notice blood in your stool, or suspect you may have a bowel disorder, you should contact your doctor.
Also, if you have at least one direct family member under the age of 55 who has had bowel cancer, or two or more direct family members who have had bowel cancer at any age, notify your doctor as you may need more rigorous screening to make sure that any disease is picked up early when it is easiest to treat.
Tips for good bowel health
While some bowel disorders will require medication prescribed by a doctor, there are also some lifestyle choices which can help improve your bowel health.
There are some things you can do to help reduce your risk including:
- exercising regularly,
- cutting down on alcohol,
- maintaining a healthy body weight,
- quitting smoking,
- eating plenty of high-fibre foods such as vegetables and legumes,
- eating less red meats and processed meats,
- and get help as soon as you think you have a problem.
Practicing good toilet habits is also important - and these include:
- going to the toilet when you feel the urge to do a poo,
- sitting on the toilet correctly, by leaning forward, with your elbows on your knees,
- avoid being constipated,
- don’t go to the toilet ‘just in case’, only go when you need to.
Knowing the signs of a healthy bowel will help you to understand when something isn’t quite right, and help you get the medical attention you may need.
Chat to your Ramsay Pharmacist for advice on bowel cancer prevention, screening and generally living a healthier lifestyle.