Bowel cancer is the fourth most common cancer in both men and women. And while research means survival is improving, the rates of people being diagnosed with the disease are also rising. A whole range of factors play into this, not least the fact that more people in the UK are living to an older age when cancer is more common. There isn’t much anyone can do about getting older, but we also know that more than half of bowel cancer cases are linked to lifestyle factors – which are much more within our control.
Making small changes to our day-to-day lives can make a big difference to the risk of developing bowel cancer. Read on to find out how, and share our graphic on social media to help spread the word this month.
1. Eat more fresh chicken, fish and meat-free meals
People who eat a diet low in processed and red meat are less likely to develop bowel cancer. Around one in five cases of bowel cancer in the UK are linked to eating too much processed and red meat. Although researchers aren’t sure exactly why this is, the main culprits appear to be certain chemicals in the meat itself.
While a bacon sandwich every now and then isn’t going to do much harm, if you’re eating a lot of processed and red meat then it’s a good idea to try to cut down. Try swapping it for fresh chicken and fish, bulking out meals with beans and vegetables to use smaller portions of meat, or choosing meat-free meals like vegetable lasagnes, curries and pasta bakes.
If you need ideas, Change4life has a great range of healthier recipes.
2. Keep a healthy weight
Keeping a healthy weight not only cuts your risk of bowel cancer, but could also reduce your risk of nine other types of cancer too. Researchers think this is because excess fat in our bodies can change our hormone levels and produce chemical messengers, which in turn can increase cancer risk.
But crash diets probably won’t help people lose weight in the long term. The best way to lose weight (and keep it off for good) is by making small changes to your daily life that you can stick to – like cutting down on sugary drinks, keeping an eye on food labels, and walking more.
Our website has more tips on how to keep a healthy weight, or visit Change4life.
3. Eat more fibre
Eating a diet high in fibre helps reduce the risk of bowel cancer in a number of ways. And one of the main ones seems to be by helping food pass through your body more quickly.
Fruit, vegetables, beans and lentils are all great sources of fibre, as well as whole grain varieties of bread, pasta and cereals. Meals don’t need to get fancy to get in more fibre. Think beans on wholemeal toast, brown pasta rather than white, and beans and peas in casseroles.
4. Drink less alcohol
We’re not saying you have to go tee-total, but it’s important to know the less you drink the lower your risk (it’s not just heavy drinking that’s linked to cancer).
So if you are going to drink alcohol, stick to the guidelines – that’s a maximum of 14 units of alcohol a week, spread evenly over at least three days. Drink free days are a good way to cut down on the total amount of alcohol you drink. Also try choosing smaller servings, drinks with lower ABVs – or cutting down on the alcohol in your drink by making it a shandy or wine spritzer.
Read this blog post to find out more about the guidelines and how many units are in different drinks. And visit our website for more tips on how to cut down on alcohol.
5. Be smokefree
Smoking doesn’t just cause lung cancer. It causes at least 13 other types of cancer (including bowel) as well as heart disease and various lung diseases. Chemicals in cigarette smoke enter the bloodstream and can affect the entire body – and it’s these that have been shown to damage our DNA and lead to cancer.
If you smoke and you want to quit, you’re much more likely to quit successfully if you get professional support rather than going it alone. There’s a whole range of free services to help keep you on track, including prescription medication and different types of support.
Speak to your GP or pharmacist, or visit NHS Smokefree for free advice and support.
6. Be active
Keeping active has a wide range of benefits for the body, including reducing the risk of bowel cancer. This is through helping food move through the bowel more quickly, as well as controlling inflammation.
It can be easier than you think to be more active, even if you don’t do much at the moment. Aim to do at least two and a half hours of moderate activity (e.g. brisk walking) a week – it may sound like a lot but you don’t need to do it all in one go – that’s just over 20 minutes each day. Build up how active you are over time. Try walking part of the way to work, and taking the stairs rather than the escalator or lift.
The more active you are, the greater the benefits you can gain – but remember it’s never too late to start.
And if you notice something unusual, talk to your doctor
Although it won’t strictly reduce your risk of developing bowel cancer, we couldn’t write this post without mentioning early diagnosis. Bowel cancer can develop at any age, but more than eight in 10 cases are diagnosed in people aged 60 and over, so this is especially important advice for older people.
When bowel cancer is diagnosed in the early stages, before it’s had time to get too big or spread, more than nine in 10 people will survive for at least five years. But when it’s found at a later stage, there may be fewer options to try to cure it, so the chances of survival are lower.
Get to know what’s normal for you, and tell your GP if you see blood in your poo, or about any change to your bowel habit – such as looser poo, pooing more often, and/or constipation – pain or a lump in your tummy, or losing weight without any reason. All of these are likely to be caused by something much less serious than bowel cancer, but it’s best to get them or any other unusual changes checked out by your GP.
Bowel cancer screening is for healthy people, without any signs or symptoms of the disease. If you’ve noticed something unusual, whatever your screening history, you should see your GP.
In England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, bowel screening tests are offered to people aged 60-74 every two years. In Scotland it’s offered from the age of 50. If you’re registered with a GP this test is sent automatically to your home in the post.
Unfortunately, the number of people taking up their bowel screening invitation is not as high as it could be. So we’re encouraging more people to consider taking part. We’re running campaigns in parts of the UK to see if using posters, letters, and kits to help people do the test more easily can make a difference by breaking down barriers to participation.
Small changes can make a big difference
Making changes doesn’t have to mean a massive overhaul of your lifestyle – if it’s something you do most days, even a small change can add up to a big difference.
And remember, if you do spot anything that’s unusual for you, it’s worth going to your GP to get it checked out. And if a bowel screening kit pops through your letter box, taking part is easier than you think.
Casey Dunlop is a health information officer at Cancer Research UK
Laurette April 28, 2016
Very Informative and clearly done with beautiful and honest graphics. (I’m a Psychologist and a Statistician so I know what appeals visually to people).
The most important thing about this site is that it is inspiring people to get off their duffs and make improvements to their lifestyle.
Anne Kirby April 28, 2016
I had bowel cancer in 2008 and was extremely lucky to survive as the tumour had almost blocked my bowel. After several visits to my GP,over a five month period, he still insisted it was irritable bowel, even after mentioning my brother died from bowel cancer. After an emergency operation to remove half of my colon and six months of chemo I am now eight years on and feel very lucky, but feel my GP should have looked for bowel cancer much sooner.
Geoff Garnett April 27, 2016
Excellent site – clear and succinct
Nick Peel April 27, 2016
Thanks for your comment.
In 2003, an advisory group called the UK National Screening Committee (NSC) recommended that bowel cancer screening should be offered to eligible people between the ages of 50-74.
But it’s up to each individual government from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to decide what age group to offer screening to.
More than eight in 10 cases of bowel cancer in the UK are diagnosed in people over the age of 60. And this will be taken into account when deciding where to set the age brackets for bowel screening.
A new screening test called bowel scope is also being introduced in England. This will be offered to people at age 55.
You can find out more information about bowel screening on our website.
Nick, Cancer Research UK
David Bevan April 27, 2016
‘The number of UK cases that can be prevented’ is an important statistic for UK public health. But the risk reduction for the individual person achieved by these ‘small changes’…is small. Even added together, they do not reduce the individual’s risk of bowel cancer as much as a screening colonoscopy performed every ten years after the age of sixty. But that of course would require significant funding…
Jayne April 26, 2016
Why does bowel screening begin at 50 in Scotland, but we have to wait until 60 in England? Surely we should all be treated equally.
Diana Macdonald April 26, 2016
Very informative. I had a tumour and part of my large bowel removed twenty years ago. Sadly I reported all my symptoms to my GP very early but they failed to diagnose it until several months later when it had grown horribly big and I was really ill. Doctors tend to look for bleeding or diarrhoea and I had severe constipation and tiredness. Please push for tests – I didn’t.
Mrs Carol Hall April 26, 2016
This is an excellent informative article! My husband had bowel cancer 4 years ago! He was caught early, had an operation, as is now clear! So all help telling everyone what to do to avoid risks is excellent!!
Laura April 25, 2016
And don’t forget to report strange bowel symptoms to your GP – this is no time to be inhibited. It could save your life.
Eileen April 25, 2016
Interesting article. I would also urge people to carry out the bowel screening if a kit pops through the letterbox. Mine came back abnormal and I had to repeat it twice more. It was a bit worrying but the follow-up colonoscopy which was carried out at a hospital showed I had polyps. These were removed from my colon and bowel, in a short one day visit, not too uncomfortable. I will now be checked every three years. I am glad I didn’t ignore the test and it is so easy to do.
Sam Macdonald April 24, 2016
This is a very helpful and well laid out article/blog. The simple way to look a lot of the healthiest options in terms of diet is to eat things in their most natural forms ie unprocessed meats and breads with visible grains and fruit and vegetables with their skins on.
Sally Jolley April 24, 2016
Very good thank you
Sheila Rogers April 24, 2016
I had bowel cancer in September 2014. Mine was caught early and had not spread. I had tumour and part of my colon removed. I’m now on 5 year follow up plan. I’m one of the lucky ones.
Kim April 24, 2016
Small changes I must eat more brown bread, I am lucky I don’t like processed meat but I do like a bit of beef and red wine.
MrDavid John Thomas April 22, 2016
In my case I can’t exercise , I’ve got an enlarged prostrate,I’ve also got cpld so I have trouble breathing, and I’m overweight , and I’ve got diabetes type 2 on insulin ,and have a very bad hip ,so I can’t walk more than 10 yards before I’m out of breath.
Kate Fraser April 22, 2016
Test showed cancer in one of my work colleagues and pretty much saved his life. He has no sign now & gets regular checks. Everyone should do it! Hubby & myself take part every 2 years without any problem so far. Better informed than not I say!!
Anbe Pearce April 22, 2016
Excellent advice which I took 7 years ago until present day. I’m grateful for the 2 yearly screening programme and cannot understand why people ignore it.
Helen April 22, 2016
Very helpful thank you
Karen Tompkins April 13, 2016
I think its a good article and informative but needs to be out there in leaflets given by GP’s to all patients regardless of age. If a GP diagnoses IBS then the Test should be offered regardless of age and even an Ultrasound as well.
Roselynn Bellamy April 12, 2016
I think this is very informative but think that tests should be available to people younger than 55. My husband has bowel cancer and he is currently In treatment. I have had IBS so a lot of the symptoms are similar and I feel that the test should be available to patients who have IBS earlier .
Mrs J Christie-Macallan April 11, 2016
A very good report very informative. Early diagnosis is very important. I know it happened to me and I have beaten it.
Shirley Morse April 10, 2016
A good article with sensible advice.
S Chaplain April 9, 2016
Very helpful advice,laid out clearly and in a memorable way.
Yasmin April 8, 2016
Kathryn Riddick April 8, 2016
Very useful information and the emphasis on starting with small changes will hopefully encourage more people to try and alter their lifestyle.