Bowel cancer, or colorectal cancer, is an umbrella term given to a cancer that exists in the lining of the colon and/or rectum (or large bowel).
Many cancers of the bowel start with small growths or polyps that develop in the inner lining of the gut. These may transform into malignant growths over time if they aren’t treated. If they are caught early when the growth is just in the bowel wall, the chances of treatment are very good.
Here are a few “myths” about colon cancer and the facts you need to know:
Myth # 1: Bowel cancer only affects men - it is a “men’s disease.”
Bowel cancer affects both men and women – of any race. In fact, over 7000 women died of colorectal cancer in the UK in 2014 and it is the third most common cause of cancer death in women (cancer research UK). It is an equal opportunity disease that does not discriminate against gender or race. Remember - your age, not your gender, is the single most important risk factor for colorectal cancer.
Myth # 2: You don't need to be screened for colon cancer if you have regular bowel movements and are feeling fine.
Bowel cancer may present with change in bowel habit or bleeding from your bottom. However, in some cases there can be little or no symptoms. When colon cancer is caught early, treatment will be very succesful. However, when colon cancer is detected at later stages, the chances for cure are much lower. If you wait for symptoms to appear then the chance of the cancer being picked up at a later stage and being untreatable are higher. Screening with colonoscopy allows cancer and pre-cancerous lesions to be diagnosed at an earlier and more treatable stage.
Myth # 3: You don't need to get screened for bowel cancer if there is no family history of bowel cancer.
Most people with bowel cancer do not have a family member with the disease. Only 10-20% of people that have bowel cancer have a family member with the disease. You can still get bowel cancer, even if no one in your family has previously had it. A family history just means that you may need to start your screening earlier or screen more frequently.
Myth # 4: There is nothing I can do to prevent bowel cancer.
Bowel cancer may be preventable. A low-fat diet, high in vegetables and fruits, and exercise may reduce your risk of developing the disease.
Since most bowel cancer develops from non-cancerous polyps - growths on the lining of the colon and rectum - screening methods can detect and remove polyps before they become cancerous. Pre-cancerous polyps, known as ‘adenomas’ take 5 years or more to develop into cancers. Therefore if the adenomas can be removed at any stage during that 5 year period then the cancer can be prevented from developing.
Myth # 5: Once you are diagnosed with bowel cancer, it is too late to do anything about it - it is fatal.
Bowel cancer is a preventable and highly treatable cancer when caught at an early stage.
People who are diagnosed with stage 1 colorectal cancer (ie cancer confined to the inner lining of the bowel) have over a 90% 5 year survival rate. In contrast, people that have stage 4 bowel cancer where the cancer has spread to distant organs have a only a 10% 5 year survival rate.
When detected early, bowel cancer can be prevented, stopping it reaching an advanced stage. As mentioned previously, most bowel cancers arise from the lining of the colon and start to develop small growths called polyps. While most polyps aren’t dangerous, some can grow larger over time and may develop into cancer. If the polyp is found early enough through screening, doctors can remove it and stop the bowel cancer advancing.
Myth # 6: Screening is only necessary for individuals who have symptoms.
The fact is that the earlier bowel cancer is picked up, the easier it is to treat, and the better the patients chances of a cure. Screening is reasonable at an early age, even if there are no symptoms, and especially in certain groups, i.e. those with a family history.
Myth # 7: A Colonoscopy is a difficult procedure to undergo.
The colonoscopy procedure is not a very painful procedure. Patients are sedated during the procedure to reduce levels of discomfort. The preparation begins the day before as the intestinal tract must be cleansed as thoroughly as possible. Strong laxatives are given to achieve this.
Myth # 8: Having a polyp means I have cancer and need surgery.
Some polyps (adenomas) are pre-cancerous lesions that can progress to bowel cancer. If these polyps are detected and removed before this progression, bowel cancer can be prevented. This is how colonoscopies and sigmoidoscopies prevent deaths from colon cancer.
Most benign polyps are completely treated and removed during a colonoscopy. Even large ones can be removed endoscopically. It is true that if cancer is found within the polyp, you may need surgery to remove that part of the colon.
Even if you need surgery, many procedures today can be performed using laparoscopic or minimally invasive approaches, which minimize recovery time, pain, and have many other benefits.
Myth # 9: Colonoscopies are the only way to detect bowel cancer.
Colonoscopy is the best screening tool for bowel cancer as it is very accurate and means that polyps can be removed and biopsies can be taken at the same time is necessary.
There are however, also a variety of other screening methods from very simple things like faecal occult blood (FOB) testing which aim to pick up any blood from your poo, to virtual colonoscopy which involves a very accurate scan of your bowel which is interpreted by a radiologist.