Bowel cancer: Don't wait until it's too late

Bowel cancer can affect people of any age, but statistically it's more common in over 60s.
Bowel cancer can affect people of any age, but statistically it's more common in over 60s.

BROWN, runny, hard, soft – poo comes in all styles. But some poos are cause for serious concern.

Bloody stools or even a change in your bowel habits could indicate a sign of something more sinister. 

"Everyone's bowel habits are different. They have their own regular pattern, people know what they are. If it starts to change outside of that normal pattern that you've been used to for more than two weeks, it's really time to go see a GP," Bowel Cancer Australia chief executive Julien Wiggins said.

Bowel cancer symptoms can also include severe abdominal pain and unexplained weight loss. 

But Mr Wiggins said regular screening can pick up potential cancers well before any symptoms appear.

"The at-home test looks for invisible blood you wouldn't see in your poo with the naked eye.

"One of the best ways we can reduce our bowel cancer risk is doing the test. If it is a positive test, it's utterly important that it's followed up by a colonoscopy, ideally within 30 days but no more than four months because otherwise the opportunity of treating it in the early stages will be lost."

A bowel cancer diagnosis is not a death sentence - when detected early, 98 per cent of cases can be successfully treated.

That's why Bowel Cancer Australia is raising awareness of the disease with its Don't Wait Until it's Too Late campaign throughout February. 

Mr Wiggins said it was vitally important for people over 60 to get tested regularly.

Bowel Cancer chief executive Julien Wiggins.

Bowel Cancer chief executive Julien Wiggins.

"People of all ages can get bowel cancer and the split is roughly 45 per cent female, 65 per cent male."

Every year, approximately 15,600 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer, with 12,000 of those over the age of 60. The average age of diagnosis is 69.

"Every birthday, our risk of bowel cancer increases purely because we are getting older."

By the end of 2019, all Australians between the ages of 50 – 74, will be eligible to screen in their own home using a faecal immunochemical test (FIT) that is mailed to them every two years.

For people aged 75 through 85, the decision to be screened should be based on a person’s preferences, life expectancy, overall health, and prior screening history.

For those ineligible but who want to screen according to their personal level of risk, a screening test can be purchased online, in pharmacy or by calling 1800 555 494.

Unfortunately, many see testing as an uncomfortable experience. Mr Wiggins said screening tests can only save lives when they are used.

"Culturally, we do not like talking about our bowel, or talking about our bowel habits, and certainly we don't like sticking something in our poo. I think there's just an embarrassment factor that goes with it," he said.

But embarrassment aside, if you do have concerns it is vital you raise them.

"Some people do sit on their symptoms, they do experience obvious bleeding but don't do anything about it.

"If you do experience it, the only person you really need to tell is your GP so something can be done about it."

Healthy bowel habits

While there are some risk factors we can't change, such as age and family history, there are many changes we can make to reduce the odds of getting bowel cancer, including:

  • Regular physical activity, such as walking the dog or taking the stairs
  • Eating whole grains
  • Eating more fibre
  • Getting more calcium 
  • Reducing red meat and processed meat consumption
  • Reducing alcohol intake
  • Giving up smoking
  • Staying within a healthy weight range