Deborah James discusses 'scary' bowel cancer symptoms
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Bowel cancer is a general term for cancer that begins in the large bowel – a part of the digestive system that includes the colon and rectum. Like all forms of cancer, survival outcomes depend on when the cancer is detected. Impeding this effort is the subtle nature of bowel cancer symptoms, which means it often slips under the radar.
“People who are diagnosed at an early stage have a better chance of successful treatment, compared to someone whose cancer has spread to other parts of the body, like the liver, lungs, lymph nodes and bones – this is called advanced bowel cancer,” explained Professor Tobias Arkenau, Consultant Medical Oncologist at The Wellington Hospital and Harley Street Clinic.
Advanced cancer usually means cancer that it is not possible to cure.
According to Cancer Research UK, discomfort or pain on the right side of your abdomen can indicate the cancer has spread to the liver.
Other signs it has spread to the liver include:
- Feeling sick
- Poor appetite and weight loss
- Swollen abdomen (called ascites)
- Yellowing of the skin (jaundice)
- Itchy skin.
According to Professor Arkenau, general bowel cancer symptoms include:
- A persistent change in bowel habit – going to the toilet more frequently, with looser, runnier stools and occasionally, abdominal pain
- Blood in stools without other symptoms of piles (haemorrhoids) – this makes it unlikely the cause is haemorrhoids
- Abdominal pain, discomfort or bloating which always occurs after eating – this can sometimes result in weight loss.
As the professor explained, it’s important to monitor how you feel and whether you are continuously displaying any of the above combinations of symptoms.
What’s my prognosis?
Prof Arkenau said: “Survival depends on the stage of your cancer (how big it is and where it has spread) when you were diagnosed; it is more likely that your bowel cancer is terminal if it has spread to other parts of the body.
“If you are diagnosed with advanced bowel cancer, speak to your doctor and care team who will advise on treatment options, including chemotherapy, surgery, targeted cancer drugs (biological therapies) and radiotherapy.”
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Am I at risk?
Your risk of developing bowel (colon and rectal) cancer depends on many things including age, genetics and lifestyle factors.
Having one or more risk factors doesn’t mean that you will definitely get bowel cancer.
The role of some parts of our diet remains unknown or uncertain. But researchers do know that some foods can definitely affect the risk of bowel cancer.
Many studies have shown that eating lots of red and processed meat increases the risk of bowel cancer.
It is estimated that around 13 out of 100 bowel cancer cases (around 13 percent) in the UK are linked to eating these meats.
Processed meat is any meat that has been treated to preserve it and/or add flavour – for example, bacon, salami, sausages, canned meat or chicken nuggets. And a portion is about two sausages or three slices of ham.
The Government recommends that people eating more than 90g of red and processed meat a day should reduce it to 70g or less. 70g is the cooked weight. This is about the same as two sausages.
A linked risk factor of bowel cancer is obesity.
Obesity means being very overweight with a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher. And being overweight is a BMI of between 25 and 30.
BMI is a measure of whether you’re a healthy weight for your height.
“The risk of bowel cancer is higher in people who are obese compared to those who have a healthy BMI,” says Cancer Research UK.
It is estimated that 11 out of 100 bowel cancers (11 percent) in the UK are linked to being overweight or obese.
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