Healthy bowels: How to minimize your risk of bowel cancer
Bowel health may not be a popular topic of conversation over dinner but keeping our bowels healthy is super important for our overall health and wellbeing. Being plagued with bowel issues can really stink.
Whether its Irritable Bowel Syndrome, GERD, pain or infection you’ll definitely know when there is an issue. Many bowel issues, while uncomfortable aren’t commonly life threatening, however one that is, is bowel cancer. The thought of bowel cancer is very scary for most. While the exact cause is unknown, there are things we can do to minimise our risk and keep ourselves healthy.
What is bowel cancer?
Bowel cancer can also be called colorectal cancer. It is when there is a cancer present at the lower end of the digestive tract in the colon or rectum. Colon polyps can sometimes be the beginning of bowel cancer which is why it is especially important you monitor if any of these polyps are found. Like many diseases, symptoms can vary from person to person. Some of the most common symptoms include;
Changes in bowel habits
Blood in stools
While these symptoms are associated with bowel cancer, it is important not to panic as they are also symptoms of other conditions. If you have any of these symptoms, the best thing you can do is go to a doctor and get checked.
Bowel cancer affects approximately 1 in 14 Australians during their lifetime. Anyone can get bowel cancer, however certain biological and lifestyle factors can increase your risk of developing the disease. Some of the factors that unfortunately can’t be changed include:
Age – those above 50 are at higher risk
History of other diseases/conditions of the bowel
History of polyps
Family history of bowel cancer
Fortunately, there are some risk factors that we can control including:
Being overweight or obese
Partaking in low levels of physical activity
Eating excessive amounts of processed foods specifically meat
High alcohol intake
What is the process of getting diagnosed?
Early detection is the best way to ensure that you beat bowel cancer. When detected in its early stages 90% of people will make a full recovery. The Australian government is serious about detection and treatment and have a national screening program for eligible Australians between 50-74 years old. Those eligible can take an at home test every two years its simple and effective. To complete the test, you will need to take 2 small samples of your poo. If this test comes back negative, you don’t need to retest for 2 more years. If the test is positive you will need to go to your doctor who will follow up with a colonoscopy to confirm a diagnosis.
How can I minimise my risk?
A large portion of the risk factors can be minimised by healthy lifestyle modifications, such as a healthy diet and undertaking regular physical activity. So, what does a healthy bowel lifestyle look like?
Low in processed meats such as deli meats and sausages
Plenty of fruit and vegetables
Low alcohol intake
Moderate physical activity on most days of the week
High Fibre Diets
A diet high in fibre has been shown to reduce the risk of bowel cancer. While the mechanisms are up for some debate, there have been some theories as to why this is. A high fibre diet assists in regular bowel movements. By speeding transition of faeces through the gut or gastrointestinal tract (including the colon) any carcinogens are in contact with the body for less time. Following a high fibre diet is quite simple as many high fibre foods are healthy foods that are in line with the general guidelines in the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating.
5 High Fibre Diet Tips:
Include at least 5 servings of vegetables in your diet daily
Have some meat free days and choose beans as an alternative to meat products.
Consume a minimum of 2 serves of fruits per day – fresh and dried fruits. Pro Tip: fruit juice has less fibre than the whole fruit.
Keep the skin on fruit and vegetables where you can
Choose wholegrain breads and cereals (wholegrain cereal, mixed grain on wholemeal bread, brown rice, wholemeal pasta)
Bowel cancer treatments will depend on several factors and is highly individualised. Some treatments include radiotherapy and/or chemotherapy, which can be in conjunction with an operation. The type of treatment you’ve received will largely determine the appropriate diet after diagnosis. If you have been diagnosed with bowel cancer and undergoing treatment there is likely to be no one size fits all treatment. An Accredited Practising Dietitian can help you to manage any symptoms and discuss a diet that will be suitable for your journey.
Bowel cancer is very easy to diagnose and treat in its early stages. Remember to have a chat to your doctor if you notice any changes in your bowel habits. If you are over the age of 50, take advantage of the free at home testing every two years. Keep a healthy high fibre diet and engage in physical activity to give yourself the best chance of prevention. If you are battling bowel cancer, it can be very scary but it is important to know you are not alone and there are supports out there through the Cancer Council Helpline or Bowel Cancer Australia.
By Simone Cammarere, Accredited Practising Dietitian for OSCAR Care Group