Australia has one of the highest rates of bowel cancer in the world, with this particular cancer being the second most common type of newly diagnosed cancer in this country.
What this means is that every year more than 15,000 Australians are told they have bowel cancer – so every week some 286 new cases are diagnosed. Of these, 77 will die from the disease, making bowel cancer – which claims the lives of more than 3,900 people every year – this country’s second largest cancer killer after lung cancer.
Australia’s ageing population also raises the risks of bowel cancer and by the time they reach 85 years of age, one in 12 people will be diagnosed with bowel cancer.
But while these figures may be alarming there is also good news. Bowel cancer is one of the most curable types of cancer and if detected in time, about 90% of bowel cancer cases can be treated successfully.
Screening can detect bowel cancer, but it has to be detected early so that it can be removed and people can continue to enjoy a healthy life. Screening means looking for early signs in otherwise healthy people who may not have any symptoms. Bowel cancer screening aims to detect bowel cancer at an early stage when there is a good chance that treatment will cure the cancer.
Despite the easy accessibility through pharmacies to screening tests, only about 40% of bowel cancers are detected early so we need to be aware of the symptoms earlier and be ready to act.
Common symptoms of bowel cancer are:
- A recent, persistent change in bowel habit
- A change in appearance of bowel movements
- Blood in the stool or rectal bleeding
- Frequent gas pain, cramps
- A feeling the bowel has not emptied
- Unexplained anaemia
- Rectal/anal pain or a lump in the rectum/anus
- Abdominal pain or swelling
The importance of screening cannot be overstressed. The statistics show that if bowel cancer is detected before it spreads beyond the bowel, the patient has a 90% chance of surviving for at least five years after diagnosis and most people are able to return to their current lifestyle.
However, because the majority of cases are not detected until they have reached a later stage of development, only about 60% about of people diagnosed with the disease survive five years.
Your community pharmacy can discuss bowel health with you and also give details of bowel screening tests that are available.
Of course, prevention is always better than a cure and while no cancer is completely preventable, it is estimated that changes in diet and physical activity could reduce the incidence of bowel cancer by up to 75%. Bowel Cancer Australia has helpful tips and hints on its website.