Bowel cancer

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What is it?

Bowel cancer kills more than 4,000 Australians each year and is the second biggest cancer killer after lung cancer1.

A higher proportion of men are diagnosed (55%) than women (45%).It is a serious condition that can affect quality of life and longevity.Bowel cancers usually start as benign, harmless growths on the lining of the bowel called polyps. Some polyps can become cancerous (malignant) and if not detected, turn into a cancerous tumour. In serious cases, the tumour spreads to other organs. There are two types of bowel cancer. Colon cancer is responsible for two-thirds of cases and rectal cancer for the remainder.

If detected early, 90% of cases can be treated successfully but fewer than 40% are found in time. The five-year survival rate for bowel cancer is 68%. This is well behind breast, melanoma and prostate cancers which have survival rates of up to 90%.

Warning signs

In the early stages of bowel cancer there may be no symptoms which can make early diagnosis a challenge. As it progresses there are a number of warning signs including blood in the bowel movement, unexplained weight loss, a persistent change in bowel habit or appearance of bowel movements, pain/lump in the anus or rectum, abdominal pain and unexplained anaemia (low red blood cell count).

In situations where symptoms continue for more than two weeks, a doctor should be seen without delay.

Risk factors

As with some other health-related conditions, there are some risk factors people do not have any control over (fixed) and some they do (variable).  Fixed risks: A key risk factor is age.

Bowel cancer risk increases substantially from age 50 although the number of cases diagnosed amongst younger Australians is also increasing. In fact 14% of cases diagnosed are for people under 55 years old. Similarly, while Australians aged over 55 account for the majority of deaths, those under 55 account for around 10%.

Family history or hereditary factors is a determinant in around 25% of all bowel cancer cases. There are also a few hereditary conditions to look out for like Lynch syndrome, familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) or attenuated FAP.

An individuals’ personal health history is another factor as there is evidence to show people with certain conditions/illnesses (e.g., Type 2 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease or ovarian cancer) could be more at risk from bowel cancer1.

Variable risks: Diet and lifestyle play an important role. Bowel cancer risk is increased by smoking, eating red meat or processed meats, drinking more than the recommended amount of alcohol and being overweight/obese.

Protect yourself: Minimise risk

The first step to protect yourself against bowel cancer is to understand your risk factors.


• This means being informed – find out if there is any family history of bowel cancer.
• As there may be no symptoms early on, screening is crucial. Bowel Cancer Australia recommends having a bowel screening every 1-2 years from age 50. If there is a family history, screenings may need to begin earlier so check with your doctor.
• A bowel screening test is not painful, and can be easily done from home. Don’t let a bit of embarrassment get in the way of having one done.
• Review your lifestyle and make changes if needed: maintaining a healthy weight and regular physical activity can reduce the risk of colon cancer.
• Knowing your risk, consider whether you have adequate insurance (e.g. life, trauma, total & permanent disability, income protection) to protect what you value most in life.


1. Bowel Cancer Australia

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