Updated 29 May 2023 | Approved By Dr. Umberto Russo
What is Bowel Cancer?Bowel cancer, also known as colorectal cancer, is a type of cancer that affects the colon or rectum. It is quite common and starts when abnormal cells grow in the inner lining of the large intestine. These abnormal cells, called polyps, can turn into cancer over time. There are two main types: colon cancer, which affects the large intestine, and rectal cancer, which affects the rectum .
Bowel Cancer Symptoms and SignsRegarding bowel cancer symptoms and signs, paying attention to changes in our bodies is essential. Bowel cancer, also known as colorectal cancer, can show different signs. One common symptom is a change in:
- Bowel habits, like persistent diarrhea or constipation.
- Rectal bleeding or blood in our stool.
- Continuous stomach pain or cramps.
- Unexplained weight loss
- Being fatigued or having low energy levels
- Anal and/or rectal pain
- Growths or lumps around the anal region
What are the early warning signs of bowel cancer?Early warning signs of bowel cancer are similar to the common symptoms described above, such as a change in bowel habits, rectal bleeding, lumps around the anus and unexplained weight loss. These symptoms can be caused by other conditions too, but it's crucial not to ignore them. If you notice any of these signs, you should talk to a doctor who can perform tests to determine the cause. Remember, early detection is key to better outcomes.
Bowel Cancer Diagnosis and TestingWhen diagnosing bowel cancer, doctors use various tests and procedures to determine if someone has the disease. Your GP may also refer you to a specialist, such as a gastroenterologist or an oncologist, to receive the necessary testing and diagnosis. The following tests help doctors confirm the presence of bowel cancer and determine its stage and extent. It's essential to cooperate with healthcare professionals and follow their recommendations for testing to ensure an accurate diagnosis.
ColonoscopyA colonoscopy is a standard procedure used to diagnose bowel cancer. During a colonoscopy, a long, flexible tube with a tiny camera attached to it is inserted into the rectum and slowly moved through the colon. The camera allows the doctor to examine the colon's inner lining and look for any abnormal growths or polyps. If any suspicious areas are found, the doctor can take a small tissue sample, called a biopsy, for further analysis. More information about colonoscopies, please refer to our guide here.
Faecal Occult Blood TestA faecal occult blood test is a test used to help diagnose bowel cancer. It involves collecting a small sample of stool and sending it to a laboratory for analysis. The test looks for hidden blood in the stool, which can be a sign of bowel cancer or other issues in the digestive system. Australia's National Bowel Cancer Screening Program was created to help Australians with the early detection of bowel cancer. The program sends a free test kit, continuing a faecal occult blood test, to eligible individuals aged 50 to 74 every two years. Individuals collect a small sample of their stool and send it back to a laboratory for analysis. Further tests like a colonoscopy may be recommended to confirm the diagnosis if the test shows positive results. This screening program aims to increase the chances of detecting bowel cancer early when it is more treatable. If eligible, participation in the program is important, as early detection can save lives.
Imaging InvestigationsCT scans and MRI scans are advanced imaging tests that can be used to help diagnose bowel cancer. These tests provide detailed pictures of the inside of the body, including the colon and surrounding areas. These scans can help doctors identify abnormal growths or tumours in the bowel. They can also provide information about the stage and spread of the cancer. However, it's important to note that these imaging tests alone may not be enough to make a definitive diagnosis. If any suspicious areas are found, further tests, such as a biopsy, may be needed to confirm whether it is cancerous.
BiopsyDoctors may recommend a biopsy when they find suspicious areas during tests, like a colonoscopy or imaging scans. A small piece of tissue is taken from the suspicious site and examined under a microscope during a biopsy. This helps doctors determine if the growth is cancerous or not. The procedure is usually performed using specialised tools during a colonoscopy or sometimes during surgery. The tissue sample is then sent to a laboratory for pathologists to analyse. Biopsies provide essential information about the type of cancer, its severity, and the appropriate treatment options.
Bowel Cancer CausesThe causes of bowel cancer can vary, and it's important to understand some common risk factors, including:
- Older age
- Family history can also play a role, especially if close relatives have had the disease.
- Unhealthy lifestyle choices, like a diet low in fibre and high in processed foods.
- Lack of physical activity and being overweight or obese are also known risk factors.
- Certain medical conditions, such as Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis, can also increase the risk.
Bower Cancer TreatmentWhen it comes to treating bowel cancer, there are different options available . The specific treatment depends on factors like the stage of the cancer, its location, and the individual's overall health. Sometimes, a combination of treatments may be used. Treatment aims to remove or control the cancer and prevent it from spreading further. It's important to discuss the available treatment options with doctors to determine the best course of action based on the individual's unique situation.
SurgerySurgery is essential in treating bowel cancer because it helps eliminate the cancerous cells and prevents the cancer from spreading further. When surgery is performed, the main goal is to remove the cancerous tumour from the bowel. Sometimes, a portion of the bowel needs to be removed as well. The recovery period after surgery can vary, and following the doctor's instructions is vital for a smooth recovery.
Radiation TherapyRadiation therapy is another treatment option for bowel cancer. It uses high-energy rays, like X-rays, to target and kill cancer cells. A machine directs these rays precisely to the affected area during radiation therapy. The radiation damages the DNA of the cancer cells, preventing them from multiplying and growing. The treatment is usually painless but may cause side effects like fatigue, skin changes, and digestive problems. The doctor will determine the specific details of radiation therapy based on the individual's condition and treatment plan.
ChemotherapyChemotherapy is a standard treatment for bowel cancer. It involves the use of drugs to kill or slow down the growth of cancer cells. These drugs can be taken orally or administered through an IV. Chemotherapy works by targeting rapidly dividing cells, which include cancer cells. It can reach cancer cells throughout the body, even if they have spread. This can lead to side effects like hair loss, nausea, fatigue, and changes in appetite. The specific chemotherapy regimen and duration of treatment vary depending on the individual's condition and the cancer stage. It is essential to follow the doctor's instructions closely and manage any side effects during chemotherapy.
Targeted TherapyTargeted therapy is a specialised treatment option for bowel cancer. It targets specific molecules or proteins involved in the growth and spread of cancer cells. Unlike chemotherapy, which affects normal and cancerous cells, targeted therapy blocks the signals cancer cells need to survive and grow. This treatment is usually given in the form of medications that are taken orally or given through an IV.
ComplicationsBowel cancer can lead to various complications affecting a person's health. One of the primary complications is the spread of cancer to other parts of the body, known as metastasis. Cancer can affect different organs and tissues when it spreads, making treatment more challenging. Other complications include :
- Bowel obstruction: This occurs when the tumour blocks the passage of stool through the intestines, causing severe pain, constipation, and bloating
- Bleeding and anaemia
- Weakening the immune system which can make the body more vulnerable to infections.
- Weight loss
RecoveryRecovery from bowel cancer depends on factors such as the cancer stage, the type of treatment received, and the individual's overall health. In general, the outcomes for bowel cancer have improved over the years due to advancements in early detection and treatment options . The outcomes are generally more favourable if the cancer is caught in the early stages when it has not spread. However, suppose the cancer has spread to other organs or distant body parts. In that case, the prognosis may be more challenging. It's important to note that everyone's prognosis is unique, and doctors can provide more specific information based on individual cases. Following the recommended treatment plan, regular check-ups, and following a healthy lifestyle can contribute to a better prognosis and overall well-being.
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