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  • Writer's pictureClaire Moore

April is Bowel Cancer Awareness Month

Updated: Jun 15, 2022

April marks Bowel Cancer Awareness Month. Bowel cancer, also known as colorectal cancer, is cancer that can develop anywhere from the large bowel, the colon, to the back passage, the rectum. Colorectal cancer is the 4th most common cancer in the UK and accounts for 10% of all new cancer cases each year worldwide.

9 out of 10 people who are diagnosed with bowel cancer are over the age of 50. We are lucky enough in the UK to have a bowel cancer screening programme, which can help diagnose new cancers in their early stage when they are easier to treat.

The signs and symptoms of bowel cancer can also be symptoms of other conditions, so it is crucial to speak with your doctor if you notice any changes. Signs of bowel change can include:

  • Bleeding from the back passage, or blood in your poo

  • Change in your normal bowel habit (looser poo or diarrhoea, increased frequency, constipation)

  • A lump that you, or the doctor, can feel in your back passage or abdomen (tummy)

  • Feeling that you need to strain in your back passage (as if you need a poo), even after opening your bowels

  • Losing weight unintentionally

  • Pain in your abdomen or back passage

  • Tiredness and breathlessness, which can be a side effect of a lower than normal level of red blood cells (anaemia)

Bowel cancer is one of the primary cancer sites that has strong evidence to suggest ways we can actively reduce our risk of developing it. Here are some suggestions on how to reduce your chances of developing bowel cancer.

Limit red and processed meat

Reducing your intake of red meat and processed meat is a great way to reduce your risk of colorectal cancer.

Red meat is a good source of protein, iron and B Vitamins, however excessive consumption can lead to damage to the gut lining which increases the risk of developing cancer. It is recommended that you limit your consumption of red meat to twice a week, or 500g of cooked red meat. Choose lean cuts of high-quality meat to get the best flavour and maximum enjoyment for a smaller portion.

When it comes to processed meat, there is no level of intake that is considered acceptable to minimise risk. Processed meats are those that have been cured or smoked, such as bacon, salami, pre-packaged hams and chorizo. The process that these meats go through produces carcinogenic chemicals that can become incorporated in the gut lining, damaging DNA, causing inflammation and increasing tumour cell production.

Here are some tips to reduce your intake of processed meats:

  • Buy sausages from a butcher

  • Choose white meats, like chicken or fish

  • Remove the processed meat, but add the spices (for example, smoked paprika is a key flavour in chorizo)

  • Half the amount of beef mince you use in a recipe and replace it with lentils

  • Don’t be afraid to try new ingredients and experiment

Eat wholegrain and sources of fibre

Wholegrains are known to be a source nutrients that may have anti-cancer properties, including vitamin E, selenium, copper and phytoestrogens. The European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) found that people with a good intake of wholegrains, such as wheat and rye, had a lower incidence of colorectal cancer.

Wholegrains are one source of fibre, but it is key to have a wide variety of fibre in our diet on a daily basis. Including different types of fibre, such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, seeds and oats, can increase the amount of ‘good’ bacteria in the colon, improving your bowel function and reducing the damage that can happen in the gut.

By making a few small changes to your daily diet, you can increase to amount of fibre that you are eating.

  • Choose wholemeal or wholegrain carbohydrates such as wholemeal pasta or seeded bread

  • Aim for half of each meal to be made up of a variety of vegetables and/or fruit

  • Have healthy snacks like sliced apples with peanut butter, dried figs or almonds

  • Add a handful of mixed nuts and seeds to soups, salads, yoghurt or porridge

  • Swap animal proteins for plant proteins, such as chickpeas, lentils or beans (these can be tinned versions!)

  • Leave the peel on fruits and vegetables

As well as focusing on the type of food that you include in your day to day diet, it is crucial that you think of your diet and lifestyle as a whole and the impact it can have on your body.

The World Cancer Research Fund suggests that there is convincing evidence that obesity and low levels of physical activity can increase the risk of developing bowel cancer, alongside 12 other primary cancers. ‘Body fatness’ can stimulate the body’s inflammatory response when it is not necessary, which can cause an increased risk of bowel cancer. Although Body Mass Index (BMI) isn’t necessarily a true indicator of health, it does give a place to start. Evidence suggests that we should aim to be as lean as possible without being underweight through a well balanced diet alongside regular physical activity.

Bowel cancer is a very treatable cancer, however there is a much higher chance of successful treatment if caught early. If you notice any changes in your bowel habit don’t be embarrassed and don’t ignore them. It is crucial that you seek medical advice; doctors are used to talking about bowel habits, so you will not be wasting their time.

For help with bowel-related conditions, contact one of our dietitians today!


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