According to the statistics of World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF), bowel cancer is the third most common cancer in the male population. Also known as colon or colorectal cancer, it affected 1.8 million people, globally in 2018 alone, suggest the facts and figures of this research body. Hungary had the highest instances of this cancer that year, found WCRF.
What is Bowel Cancer?
This cancer occurs when the cells of your large intestine (rectum and colon) grow and divide abnormally, leading to malignant tumours. Typically, bowel cancer starts with small, benign clumps of cells known as polyps. They develop on the inside lining of the colon and become cancerous over time if left untreated. Like all other cancers, bowel cancer also has four stages. Several factors like genetic mutation, age and lifestyle issues like sedentary habits, smoking and excessive alcohol intake may increase your chance of getting bowel cancer.
Bowel Cancer Symptoms
This cancer may not show any symptom at the initial stage. However, the manifestations may become noticeable as the condition progresses. The symptoms of bowel cancer may vary depending on the size and location of the tumour. Here are a few red flags to watch out for:
- Persistent diarrhoea or constipation
- Bleeding rectum
- Blood in the stool
- Gas, cramps, or discomfort in the abdomen
- Heavy feeling in the tummy
- Unexplained fatigue or weight loss
- Long-term change in the colour, consistency and shape of your stool
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Iron deficiency
What Causes Bowel Cancer?
Like any other cancer, bowel cancer is also the result of abnormal cell growth and division. Though scientists are yet to zero in on specific culprits behind the condition, they hypothesize that certain factors may contribute to the development of bowel cancer.
Abnormal cells build up on the lining of colon leasing to small, benign growths. Known as polyps, these can become cancerous if left untreated.
Our cells start functioning abnormally when they experience a damage. Abnormal cell division can also be caused by an altered DNA sequencing, a condition known as gene mutation. Though genetic mutation doesn’t guarantee that you will develop bowel cancer, it increases your vulnerability to this condition for sure. Sometimes, it runs in families too.
Bowel Cancer Risks
There are several factors that can increase your chance of developing bowel cancer. Some of them are avoidable, while others are modifiable.
Older age: Though anyone can get colon cancer, people above 50 are more vulnerable to this condition.
Inflammatory intestinal conditions: Chronic inflammatory bowel conditions, such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease, increase your chances of colon or colorectal cancer.
Radiation therapy for pre-existing cancer: Your chance of getting bowel cancer escalates if you’ve had to go through radiation therapy for any other cancer. The risk increases all the more if radiation is focussed on your abdomen.
Poor eating habits: A growing body of research suggests that a diet high in fat and calories and low in fibre is associated with a higher chance of bowel cancer.
Obesity: Excessive body weight is the result of poor eating habits and a sedentary lifestyle. It has been found that obese people are more likely to develop bowel cancer.
Diabetes: Evidences suggest that people with high blood sugar levels are more vulnerable to colon cancer.
Smoking and alcohol abuse: Overindulging in alcoholic drinks and smoking are known to elevate your chance of any cancer including that of the colon.
Stages of Bowel Cancer
Cancer staging is done in order to assess its severity and spread. It is crucial for an oncologist to figure the stage of a cancer in order to figure out the appropriate line of treatment. Here are the different stages of bowel cancer.
Stage 1: This is the initial phase of bowel cancer. At this stage the cancer cells have just started populating the lining of the colon or rectum but hasn’t reached the walls of these organs.
Stage 2: At this stage, cancer cells can be found on the walls of the colon or rectum. However, they are yet to hit the lymph nodes or nearby tissues.
Stage 3: The cancer cells have invaded two to three lymph nodes. However, they haven’t spread to other parts of the body.
Stage 4: At this stage, the cancer cells have marched to distant organs of the body, such as the liver or the lungs.
Diagnosis of Bowel Cancer
Early diagnosis of any condition, especially the fatal ones like cancer increases the chance of successful treatment outcome. Doctors suggest that people who fall in the high-risk group of bowel cancer should start screening for it before they turn 50. However, those with moderate risk can start it after 50. Your doctor will start by reviewing your medical and family history and then move on to a physical exam. The aim is to feel the presence of lumps or polyps. If he suspects bowel cancer, your physician may suggest the following tests.
Blood test: There is no specific blood test to detect bowel cancer. However, your doctor may suggest liver function tests and blood counts to rule out the possibility of other conditions.
Colonoscopy: This is an imaging test that gives a clear picture of your colon and rectum to your doctor allowing him to figure if there’s any abnormality. It uses a small, camera fitted to a long tube.
Barium X-ray: This is a less expensive test than colonoscopy to diagnose any abnormality in your colon or rectum. In this procedure, X-ray is conducted after the doctor injects a solution containing an element known as barium into the colon through rectum. This solution, which coats the lining of your colon, ensures X-ray images with better clarity.
Treatment of Bowel cancer
The treatment depends on a variety of factors including the location of stage of bowel cancer. Here is a low-down on various treatment options.
Surgery: If your bowel cancer at the initial stage, your doctor may remove the malignant polyps through surgery. However, if the cancerous cells have populated your bowel walls, surgical removal of a portion of the colon or rectum along with the adjoining lymph nodes may be required. Your surgeon may reattach the healthy part of the large intestine to your rectum. However, if that’s not possible, your physician may need to create an opening on the abdominal wall for waste to leave your body.
Chemotherapy: It can be used before or after the surgery. Pre-surgery chemotherapy is aimed to reduce the size of a large tumour so that it can be removed easily during the surgery. It is also used after the surgery to destroy the remaining cancer cells that have spread to the lymph nodes. Chemotherapy is also suggested to ease bowel cancer symptoms if the tumour cannot be removed surgically.
Radiation therapy: This method uses powerful X-rays and proton to kill cancer cells. A large tumour can be reduced in size with radiation therapy.
Targeted drug therapy: It works by blocking specific abnormalities inside cancer cells. Sometimes, it is combined with chemotherapy.
Immunotherapy: It is advised in case of advanced colon cancer. This drug therapy aims to stimulate your immune cells against cancer.
Bowel Cancer Diet
Your post-treatment diet plays an instrumental role in your recovery. These are the golden dietary rules you should follow to enhance the healing process:
- Fill your plate with lots of fruits and vegetables
- Include foods rich in good fats, lean meats
- Opt for low-fat dairy products
- Keep yourself hydrated
- Limit caffeine and alcohol
- Include calcium and vitamin D in your meals
- Load up on for whole grains
- Cut back on refined sugar
- Eat small, frequent meals
Reduce Your Bowel Cancer Risk
Certain lifestyle factors can up your risk of developing bowel cancer. You can surely work on these modifiable risk factors to decrease your chance of getting colon cancer. They are:
- Reduce your red meat intake
- Stay away from processed meat
- Load up on plant-based foods
- Cut back on dietary fat
- Work out regularly to maintain a healthy body weight
- Say no to smoking
- Don’t overdo alcohol
- Don’t let your blood sugar levels shoot up
- Start screening for bowel cancer before you turn 50 if you fall in the high risk group