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Who is at risk?
The majority of cases (around 80 per cent) occur in people over the age of 60 but diet and exercise can also put you at greater risk of the disease. For instance, a diet that is high in red or processed meats can increase your risk, and if you are overweight the chances of developing bowel cancer are also higher. Alcohol and smoking may also put you at greater risk as does a family history of the disease.
What are the symptoms?
In the early stages, bowel cancer may display no symptoms but blood in the stools or from the rectum, a persistent change in bowel habits (such as diarrhoea, constipation, or more frequent trips to the toilet), abdominal pain and unexplained weight loss should always be checked out.
In some cases, the cancer can cause an obstruction which could result in a bloated feeling, constipation and vomiting. As the cancer progresses, bleeding inside the bowel can cause anaemia (a lack of red blood cells) leaving the sufferer extremely tired and/or breathless.
Though most of these symptoms may well signal another less serious problem, it is always worth going to your GP if you are concerned.
Bowel cancer often requires surgery but for approximately one in five cases, the advanced stage of the cancer means chemotherapy, radiotherapy or biological therapy may also be necessary.
If you are diagnosed with the disease, a multidisciplinary team, comprising cancer specialists and sometimes physiotherapist, dietician or occupational therapist will determine the best course of treatment based on the type and size of the cancer, how far it has progressed and whether it has spread to other parts of the body.
For those who are struggling to cope with bowel cancer, talking to friends and family or a support group that allows you to meet others with the same disease, may prove helpful. Alternatively, Bowel Cancer UK run a free telephone advisory service where you can speak to a specialist nurse and similarly, www.beatingbowelcancer.org provides further support services.
Remember, bowel cancer can be detected before any symptoms appear - the earlier it is diagnosed, the easier it is to treat. Men and women between the ages of 60 and 69 who are registered with a GP should receive an invitation to the NHS Bowel Cancer Screening Programme but if you are at high risk of developing the disease, call the bowel cancer screening helpline on 0800 707 6060.