In New Zealand, more than 3,000 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer each year. Most people diagnosed with bowel cancer are over the age of 50. Bowel cancer develops in the digestive system between the stomach and the anus, including in the intestines, bowel, and rectum.
People who are more at risk of developing bowel cancer include those who have a family history of bowel cancer or polyps (abnormal tissue growths), have an inflammatory bowel disease for an extended period of time, have a diet high in fat, are overweight, or frequently smoke or consume alcohol.
The National Bowel Screening Programme is currently being rolled out throughout New Zealand and is due to be in place nationwide by the end of 2021. This programme will offer screening to people aged between 60 and 74 every two years. Testing involves a non-invasive self-screening kit that can be completed at home by taking a sample of your bowel motion (poo) to be sent for testing.
Bowel symptoms may not be related to bowel cancer but should be investigated to find the cause regardless. Bowel cancer symptoms vary and, in some cases, may not be present, however some common symptoms include:
- Rectal bleeding and blood in bowel motions
- Changes in bowel habit, especially looser or more frequent bowel motions
- Diarrhoea, constipation, or feeling like your bowel does not completely empty
- Abdominal pain and general discomfort
- Tiredness and weight loss
If you have bowel symptoms, talk to your doctor. Your doctor will be able to run some tests to check for bowel cancer or other bowel issues. Tests may include:
- A digital rectal examination
- A faecal occult blood test that checks for blood in your stool
- A blood test for iron-deficiency anaemia
- An x-ray of your digestive tract
- A colonoscopy and biopsy
If you are diagnosed with bowel cancer, your doctors will discuss the best treatment options for you. This may include surgery to remove the cancer cells, chemotherapy, or radiation. Surgery may result in part of your bowel being removed and reattached, or the new end of your bowel may be relocated to an opening in the skin called a stoma which empties into a bag.
While bowel cancer cannot be completely prevented, some lifestyle habits can improve your risk. These include:
- Maintaining a healthy body weight
- Regularly doing physical activity
- Eating a diet rich in whole grains, cereals, fruit, and vegetables
- Reducing your intake of fats, salt, and sugars
- Moderating alcohol intake and stopping smoking
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