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Bowel Cancer Risk Factors & Reducing your 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:

Risk Factors

1. Diet – A diet high in red and processed meat has been found to increase bowel cancer risk, whilst diets with a high proportion of fruit, vegetables, whole grains and fibre are found to decrease risk. Cancer Research UK stated in 2010 that approximately 21% of all bowel cancers were related to the consumption of red and processed meat.

2. Lifestyle – 13% of bowel cancers are linked to obesity (having a BMI above 40), and there appears to be a stronger link between 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.

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

4. Ethnicity – 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. African Americans also demonstrate a higher risk although the reason for this is yet to be established.

5. 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.

6. Age – The risk of developing bowel cancer 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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Reducing your risk

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, other medical conditions and a strong family history of bowel cancer. However, there are other lifestyle changes you could consider making to help reduce your risk.

Keep to a healthy diet

Research suggests that, although a diet high in fibre and low in fat can’t prevent bowel cancer, it can reduce your risk. 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. Reducing your alcohol intake is a good step in reducing your risk of bowel cancer.

Stop smoking

Giving up smoking 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

Evidence suggests that regular exercise can lower the risk of developing bowel and other cancers. 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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