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Planning Retirement Online

    Bowel Cancer    

    February 2008   


Bowel cancer is the second most common cause of cancer death in the UK. But it is relatively simple to treat, especially if it is diagnosed in the early stages. Here’s the low-down on how to protect yourself and the action to take if you or one of your family are diagnosed with bowel cancer/ receive a positive diagnosis


There are lots of ways to reduce your risk of developing bowel cancer: the right diet and keeping fit are most important.

A fibre-rich diet will speed the movement of waste through your digestive system and prevent constipation. Anything that slows down your digestive system and leaves waste in your colon for longer than normal is a potential extra risk to your health. Eating at least five portions of fruit and vegetables every day will speed up your digestive system and help the colon to empty itself regularly.

Drinking plenty of water – ideally two to three litres a day - will also help this process by keeping motions soft. Try to cut down on tea, coffee and cola, which contain caffeine – as they encourage fluid to pass through the body as urine rather than circulating in the colon.

Cutting down on fatty meat and dairy fats is also a good idea. Even if you are fit and fat, you are still at increased risk of bowel cancer. Reduce the amount of fried food and trim any visible fat on meat and poultry. You should also try to reduce the amount of processed food such as biscuits and cakes, which have high levels of ‘hidden’ fat.

Try to include foods that protect against bowel cancer in your diet: onions, garlic and leeks are all thought to protect the gut against cancer - and there is also evidence that broccoli and watercress may also provide protection.

Being fit is also important. Exercising your body keeps your colon fit to cope with its daily work as well as keeping off fat around the middle as we get older. About 30 minutes of moderate daily exercise is recommended – and that includes brisk walking or gardening as well as normal exercise.

As part of your healthy lifestyle, stop smoking and try to reduce consumption of alcohol – beer and spirits in particular raise your risk of getting bowel cancer. Keeping slim is also a good idea: eat a big breakfast, a middle-sized lunch and a small dinner with only fruit as snacks in between meals.

You are more at risk of getting bowel cancer if there is history of the disease in the family particularly close relatives. If you have Crohn’s disease or inflammatory bowel disease, you are also at increased risk.



  • The charity, Bowel Cancer UK, advises people to check their motions daily, looking in the toilet pan and use a torch if the light is poor. Motions should be mid to dark brown in colour.

  • Symptoms of bowel cancer can easily be confused with normal changes in bowel pattern. Every day millions of people have bleeding from the bottom or changes in bowel movements. Do consult your GP if you are concerned about such symptoms.

  • Screening for bowel cancer is now available for people who are over 50 – the age group that is most at risk of the disease.


*Take time to read any written information you are given carefully
*Write down questions you want to ask when you visit the hospital
*Ask to talk to a Colorectal Specialist nurse

IF SOMEONE IN YOUR FAMILY IS diagnosed with bowel cancer

*Look after them well before and after treatment; they will need extra support. Give them plenty of reassurance, they’ll almost certainly need it.
*Be prepared to attend hospital appointments with a relative. Being an extra pair of ears can be invaluable especially at stressful times.
*Remember that most bowel cancer is NOT inherited and therefore you are not necessarily at extra risk of getting the disease if you are the child of a bowel cancer sufferer.



Q. Two close relatives have had bowel cancer so I eat lots of fruit and veg and wholegrain food. Does a healthy diet cancel out an inherited risk of cancer?
A. A healthy diet including at least five portions of fruit and veg will reduce but not eliminate completely the risk of bowel cancer. If you have one parent or sibling who has had bowel cancer under the age of 50 or two close relatives with bowel cancer over the age of 50, talk to your doctor about getting a screening test for bowel cancer yourself.

Q. I’ve had bad diarrhoea and I don't think it was food poisoning. Should I be
getting it checked at the hospital?
A. Most diarrhoea settles if you stop eating for a day or two and drink plenty of water containing sugar and salt. If you feel unwell with diarrhoea you should consult your GP. If diarrhoea lasts for more than six weeks with no obvious cause. your GP will usually refer you to a specialist for further tests.

Q. I'm having surgery to have a polyp removed from my bowel following a
sigmoidoscopy. Does this mean I've got bowel cancer?
A. If a polyp removed from the bowel is bigger than 5mm it will usually be sent to the lab for analysis. The majority of polyps in the bowel are not cancers. Some of them (called adenomas) carry a risk of turning into cancers if left in the bowel for a period of years. If you have a polyp removed and are told it was an adenoma, you should discuss with a specialist whether you should have further colonoscopies in future to check you have no other adenomas.

Q. My father has been told he needs more treatment following surgery. Does
this mean the operation wasn't successful?
A. When someone has an operation for bowel cancer, the cancer is almost always removed and sent to the lab for analysis. This gives more information about the type of cancer and its extent. If the analysis shows that the bowel cancer has spread into lymph glands then the specialist will usually discuss with the patient whether to have further treatment, usually chemotherapy, to reduce the risk of the cancer coming back in the future.



Bowel Cancer UK (  ) or telephone advisory service: 08708 50 60 50
Or phone Lynn’s Bowel Cancer Campaign 24-hour recorded symptoms hotline: 0870 24 24 870.



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