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Risk Factors & Reducing Risk

Bowel Awareness Video

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The risk of developing bowel cancer (also known as colon cancer, rectal cancer or colorectal cancer) is influenced by a number of risk factors that include:

Diet – Diets high in red meat and processed meat content are found to contribute towards bowel cancer. Diets with a high proportion of fruit, vegetables, whole grains and fibre are found to decrease the risk of bowel cancer. Cancer Research UK states that in 2010, approximately 21% of all bowel cancers were related to the consumption of red and processed meat.

Lifestyle – 13% of bowel cancers are linked to obesity (having a BMI above 40) and there appears to be a stronger link with obesity and colon cancer in men. Long term smokers also have a higher risk of colon/bowel cancer than non-smokers and heavy consumption of alcohol is also known to increase risk.

Family History – If there is a strong family history of bowel cancer i.e. several relatives have suffered from the disease, the risk is twice that of the average risk (25%). Bowel cancer caused by genetic defects can lead to bowel cancer that occurs at a younger age than is common.

Ethnicity – Your race or ethnicity may be a bowel cancer risk factor as certain racial groups are known to have higher bowel cancer incidence and mortality rates. Ashkenazi Jews are found to have several genetic mutations that cause one of the highest risks of bowel cancer amongst ethnic groups and African Americans also demonstrate a higher risk although the reason for this is yet to be established.

Other medical conditions – Other diseases, often related to the colon such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease increase the risk of developing bowel cancer.

Age – Age is a bowel cancer risk factor and the risk starts to rise significantly from the age of 45.

Understanding these bowel cancer risk factors can help you make changes to your lifestyle and be aware of the condition. Just because you have a risk factor doesn’t necessarily mean you will develop bowel cancer.

However, early detection saves lives and you can take a BowelCheck, which is a simple test you can do at home that will help identify any abnormalities and advise you on your risk factors.

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How can I prevent getting bowel cancer?

You can’t completely prevent bowel cancer but you can try to reduce your own risk of developing this serious disease. There’s nothing you can do about some of the risk factors, such as your age, and while younger adults can develop bowel cancer, the chances increase from the age of 50 onwards. Younger adults can develop bowel cancer but the chances increase from the age of 50 onwards. Additionally, some medical conditions such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease put people at increased risk. And f you have a strong family history of bowel cancer you may be at twice the average risk. However, there are other lifestyle changes you could consider making to help reduce your risk of bowel cancer.

Keep to a healthy diet

Research suggests that a diet high in fibre and low in fat can’t prevent bowel cancer but can reduce your risk of bowel cancer. You should eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables (at least five portions a day) as well as wholegrains. It is recommended that you eat less red and processed meat. Obesity is a definite risk factor so healthy eating will help you to control your weight and thus reduce your risk.

Cut down on alcohol

Alcohol increases the risk of bowel cancer and other cancers too. If you drink alcohol, try to cut down. Reducing your alcohol intake is a good step in reducing your risk of bowel cancer.

Stop smoking

If you smoke, giving up will reduce your risk of developing bowel and other cancers. Tobacco contains many toxins which have a negative effect on your health and put you at significant risk of developing bowel cancer.

Exercise regularly

There is good evidence to suggest regular exercise can lower the risk of developing bowel and other cancers. Try to maintain a healthy weight. Taking part in physical activities will help keep your weight under control as well as aiding the digestive system.

Understand the symptoms of bowel cancer

Part of your bowel cancer prevention and risk reduction plan should be to be aware of what to look out for and if you have any of these symptoms, don’t be embarrassed, talk to your doctor straight away. Remember, bowel cancer is a very treatable disease if detected in its earliest stages.

Bowel cancer symptoms include:

  • blood in your poo and/or bleeding from your bottom
  • a change in your normal bowel habit lasting three weeks or more, particularly if it is more like diarrhoea
  • unexplained weight loss
  • extreme tiredness for no obvious reason
  • a pain or lump in your tummy

Bowel cancer screening

Whilst undergoing bowel cancer screening will not prevent bowel cancer, it can help to detect cancers in their earliest stages and ensure you get treatment early. Screening can also detect the non-cancerous lesions (polyps) that may subsequently turn into cancer, and allow these to be removed, thus preventing bowel cancer from forming. If you are worried about bowel cancer, Check4Cancer has developed BowelCheck, a simple testing kit that you can use in the comfort of your own home. Unlike the NHS bowel cancer screening programme, BowelCheck is available to anyone over the age of 45 and the testing mechanism is more advanced leading to more accurate results. No bowel cancer screening test can be guaranteed to be 100% accurate, and a positive result from BowelCheck will mean that further investigations are likely to be recommended.

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