“Don’t be a fool – test your stool!”
Some people might have a little giggle when hearing this phrase from Bowel Cancer Australia, but for the 14,860 Australians that are diagnosed with bowel cancer every year; the disease is no laughing matter. Australia has one of the highest rates of bowel cancer in the world and is our second biggest cancer killer. The good news is, if detected early, 90 percent of cases can be treated successfully. However, fewer than 40 percent are diagnosed in the early stage, with one in five Australians with symptoms delaying seeking medical advice. Why is this so? Some people think that it’s our reluctance to have a serious conversation about our bowel movements is sending us to an early grave. With almost 4,000 Australians dying of bowel cancer per year, it’s time to have a talk about our stools and join the bowel movement.
What’s bowel cancer, you ask?
It’s important to start here, as 81 percent of bowel cancer sufferers believe that the general public doesn’t understand their cancer.
Bowel cancer is a cancer of the large intestine (comprised of the colon and rectum). It’s also known as colorectal cancer. Most people know the bowel to be the sewerage plant of our body, processing waste products into faeces. As we age, little lumps can grow on the colon or rectum and can become cancerous. These growths, called polyps, look like small spots on the bowel lining. Although almost all bowel cancers begin as polyps, not all polyps will become cancerous, and can be removed easily during a colonoscopy. Nonetheless, once the polyps are sighted by your specialist and removed, the risk of contracting bowel cancer is reduced.
If polyps go undetected, they have the potential to become malignant and eventually spread to the deeper layer of the bowel, to the lymph node, or if fully metastasized, to other organs such as the liver or the lungs.
Bad stool symptoms
Bowel cancer is often considered a frightening illness because in its early stages, it can have no serious symptoms. Some people report the following changes in their faecal matter:
- A change in bowel movements, such as diarrhoea, constipation or having to go to the toilet more frequently
- Mucus in stools
- Changes in the appearance of your stools (i.e. narrowing)
- A feeling that your bowel hasn’t emptied completely after using the bathroom
- Blood in stools or on toilet paper
In addition to feeling like there’s something strange about your loo visits, the below are also considered signs of bowel cancer:
- Weight loss
- Abdominal pain
- Extreme fatigue
Bowel Cancer Australia says the main symptom you should watch for is bleeding, but even one persistent symptom is worth a trip to your GP.
Again, 90 percent of all cases can be treated successfully, so you should always race to a doctor as soon as you notice any of the aforementioned symptoms.
There are many different types of treatment for bowel cancer, based on the location of the cancer and how advanced the cancer is. Most people are treated with surgery but chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy may be needed. Your trusted medical professionals will recommend treatments with your specific case in mind.
Tools to test your stool
Visiting your local GP for a bowel cancer screening every one to two years is recommended for persons aged 50 years and over, as the risk of the disease dramatically increases in this age bracket, although Bowel Cancer Australia stresses that you’re never too young to develop bowel cancer. 1,000 people under 50 years of age contract the illness each year. The bowel cancer screening process uses a test called a Faecal Occult Blood Test (FOBT) which can detect small amounts of blood in your bowel movement. Studies have shown that performing an FOBT every two years after you’ve turned 50 can reduce your risk of dying from bowel cancer by 15 to 33 percent. You can get these tests from your doctor or if you want to be a bit more discreet you can buy a test kit online.
If the test comes back positive, you’ll require a colonoscopy which may detect the presence of bowel cancer. If it comes back negative, it is still recommended to complete the test every one to two years. Be aware that false negatives are possible, as cancers of the bowel don’t necessarily leak blood constantly. If you are still concerned after a negative result, ask your GP to refer you for a colonoscopy.
Small actions, big movement
While it would be nice, we can’t stop ourselves from ageing. We can, however, reduce our risk of bowel cancer by adjusting our lifestyle slightly. There have been a number of lifestyle factors that have been shown to increase the risk of bowel cancer, such as smoking, dietary habits and carrying excess weight.
There are a number of small actions that can lead to big (bowel) changes, including:
- Exercising 30 minutes or more a day
- Drinking plenty of water
- Eating a diet high in fibre to promote healthy bowel movements
- Increasing fruit and vegetable intake (at least two servings of fruit and five serves of vegetables per day)
- Quitting smoking
- Limiting alcohol intake.
Nobody likes talking about their bowels, but with 20,000 new cases per year predicted from 2020, we cannot afford to skirt around the issue. Researchers still haven’t found a cure for bowel cancer; but by changing our lifestyles slightly and being aware of the signs and symptoms; we can all reduce our risk of facing a late-stage diagnosis. In addition, having a comprehensive health insurance policy ensures you and your family have the very best level of comfort and choice if bowel cancer does strike. Make sure you compare providers to get the best deal on a health plan, and check policies for certain inclusions for peace of mind.