The Importance of Bowel Cancer Screening
Importance of bowel cancer screening
Dr David Burling specialises in the diagnosis and staging of bowel cancer. In this blog post, he highlights why regular bowel cancer screening is so important.
What is bowel cancer?
‘Bowel cancer’ is cancer of the colon or rectum and affects both men and women. Compared to other cancers, bowel cancer is fairly common, with more than 1 in 20 people likely to develop bowel cancer in their lifetime. Bowel cancer is the most common cause of cancer death in non-smokers.
Why is it important to get screened for bowel cancer?
Although bowel cancer is common, it is one of the few cancers that can be prevented by the detection and removal of its precursor, the benign colonic polyp. Benign colonic polyps develop sporadically and grow slowly without any symptoms so people are unaware until the polyps transform into cancer, usually after 5 or 10 years of growth.
When polyps are detected, they can be removed to eliminate the risk of developing cancer. Not all polyps will grow and so we generally target larger polyps for excision.
Who should get a bowel cancer screening?
The English NHS currently sends out screening kits to test older peoples’ stool for blood, which is a marker of cancer. However, the incidence of bowel cancer amongst younger patients is increasing and so experts and organisations such as the American Cancer Society recommend people start screening from the age of 45 years and should ideally choose a test which reliably detects the polyp precursors of bowel cancer.
What does bowel cancer testing entail?
There are two accurate methods for screening people for polyp precursors of bowel cancer; colonoscopy and CT colonography.
A colonoscopy involves inserting a long flexible tube, with video camera and light source at the tip, into the bottom and around the colon to look for colonic polyps and cancer. Colonoscopy requires a standard laxative regimen and frequently uses sedation. An advantage of colonoscopy is that colonic polyps can be removed at the same time as detection.
A CT colonography (or virtual colonoscopy) uses a very small flexible tube placed into the bottom through which carbon dioxide is introduced to distend the colon. A CT scan is taken which covers the entire abdomen and pelvis, providing additional information about the colon, appendix and other abdomino-pelvic organs such as kidneys, liver, pancreas and ovaries. CT colonography is usually more convenient and easier to tolerate than colonoscopy, utilising a reduced laxative preparation and not requiring sedation so that patients can return to daily activities after the examination. CT colonography provides more diagnostic information and can reassure patients they do not have disease elsewhere in the colon. If a significant polyp is detected, targeted endoscopy is usually necessary but this will only affect about 10% of patients or less.
Bowel cancer symptoms and risk factors
If you are concerned about bowel cancer, there are three main symptoms to look out for. These include:
- Abdominal pain, discomfort or bloating, often leading to weight loss
- Persistent blood in the stools
- Persistent change in bowel habit, such as going the toilet more frequently and passing looser stools
While the cause of bowel cancer is unknown, there are several factors that may increase your risk of developing it. These include:
- Age – risk of bowel cancer increases with age from the age of 45 years
- Diet – low fibre diets, high in red or processed meats can increase your risk
- Family history of bowel cancer
Ways to reduce your risk of developing bowel cancer:
- Reduce your intake of red and processed meat
- Make sure you include enough fibre in your diet
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Limit your alcohol intake
- Do at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week
- Stop smoking
Book a bowel cancer screening
Dr Burling is an expert in Gastrointestinal Radiology and offers CT Colonography at 9 Harley Street, working with a very experienced team who have been delivering the highest quality CT colonography examinations since 2009.
You can find out more about Dr Burling and his team here.