Jeremy Clark on the combat of bowel cancer


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More people die from bowel cancer than any other form, apart from lung cancer1. Jeremy Clark, a specialist colorectal surgeon at the Montefiore Hospital, says a good diet, careful monitoring and early detection can all help to combat the disease.

Every day, over 100 people in the UK are diagnosed with bowel cancer. But it need not necessarily be a death sentence, for bowel cancer is one of those that can be treated successfully if caught early enough. The trouble is that most people are embarrassed when it comes to bodily functions and may put off going to the doctor until their symptoms are such that they can’t be ignored any longer. This is probably why as many as 25 per cent of cases are only discovered when patients are admitted to hospital as an emergency. Sadly this often means the cancer has progressed beyond the stage of being easily treated.

The good news is that bowel cancer can be detected before it develops by doing a simple stool test at home. You take a small sample and send it off for testing. The laboratory process will determine whether or not it contains any blood, which could indicate that you have a polyp in your bowel. Polyps are growths on the lining of your gut and while they are not usually cancerous, they can become so. Removing polyps is easily done and ultimately will prevent bowel cancer from developing.

In England, everyone aged between 60 and 69 is eligible for testing on the NHS –and this is being extended to include people up to the age of 75. This is because, although bowel cancer can affect anyone of any age, the risk increases significantly with age. Outside this age bracket there are groups of people who are more at risk, who are offered screening. For example, chronic conditions such as ulcerative colitis or diabetes increase the chances of developing the disease. Genetics also appear to play a role – if you have a close relative who has had bowel cancer, you could be more likely to get it too.

However, although you may be genetically predisposed to getting bowel cancer, your lifestyle has a far greater influence on whether or not you will. Taking regular exercise, giving up smoking and maintaining a healthy weight are all important factors; but eating a low-fat, high-fibre diet with minimal amounts of animal fat is probably the most significant way of protecting yourself.

This is supported by a study that looks at the rate of bowel cancer in Japanese populations which found that those who are brought up in western countries are three or four times more likely to develop the disease than those who live in Japan, where the traditional diet is based on rice, fish and vegetables. That said, in recent years bowel cancer in Japan has increased considerably but so has the availability of western food.

Bowel cancer can affect even the most clean-living, so you should visit your GP if you have any of the following symptoms for more than three weeks: a change in your bowel habit, bleeding when you go to the toilet, unexplained weight loss or a pain or lump in your abdomen.

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These symptoms don’t mean you have cancer but it’s better to find out sooner rather than later. If bowel cancer is diagnosed in the earlier stages, then surgery to remove the growth can be a successful treatment. Nowadays, this is often done via keyhole surgery which means a shorter stay in hospital and a quicker recovery.

Jeremy Clark is a consultant surgeon specialising in laparoscopic (keyhole) and colorectal surgery. For more information visit or call 01273 828120

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