A rise in bowel cancer among men has been reported across the UK media.
The news is based on figures released by Cancer Research UK, coinciding with the start of bowel cancer awareness month and the launch of the Make Bobby Proud awareness and fundraising campaign. The figures show that bowel cancer rates have increased by nearly a third in men, and by 6% in women, over the past 35 years.
Many of the news articles linked the increasing rates of bowel cancer to our lifestyles, blaming obesity and the consumption of diets high in red and processed meat and low in fibre. In reality, the reasons why the number of cases have increased are not certain. Why there is a difference in the rate of increase in bowel cancer between men and women is also not yet understood.
We know that certain factors increase your chances of getting bowel cancer. These include modifiable factors such as diet, inactivity, obesity, smoking and alcohol. Other factors such as family history and digestive and genetic conditions can also be involved. However, the increasing incidence of bowel cancer has not been conclusively linked to changes in these or other factors over the past 35 years.
What do the Cancer Research UK figures show?
In 1975 to 1977, there were 45 cases of bowel cancer per 100,000 men. By 2008 to 2010, this had risen to 58 cases per 100,000, an increase of 29%. Cases in women increased from 35 to 37 per 100,000 in the same period, a rise of 6%.
People in their 60s and 70s experienced the largest increase in the number of cases.
It is not currently known why the number of cases has increased, or why there are differences between men and women.
Encouragingly, bowel cancer survival is also increasing, with half of all patients living for at least 10 years after a diagnosis. This compares well to 10-year survival rates for pancreatic cancer (2.4% for women and 2.9% for men), but is some way short of the 10-year survival rate for women with breast cancer (77%).
What is bowel cancer?
Bowel cancer, also called colorectal cancer, is cancer of the large bowel (colon cancer) and cancer of the back passage (cancer of the rectum).
Bowel cancer is the fourth most common cancer in the UK, but is the second most common cause of cancer death in the UK.
What are the signs and symptoms of bowel cancer?
If you have any of the following symptoms for more than three weeks without a reason, you should make an appointment with your GP so that they can rule out (or detect) bowel cancer:
- bleeding from the back passage
- a persistent change in your bowel habit towards looser or more frequent bowel motions
- bloating, swelling, pain, or an unexplained lump in the tummy
- unexplained weight loss
- tiredness or looking pale
Can I be screened for bowel cancer in the UK?
Yes. Men and women aged 60 to 69 are sent a screening kit every two years, and screening will soon be offered to people up to their 75th birthday.
People over the age of 70 can request a screening kit by calling the NHS Bowel Cancer Screening Programme helpline free on 0800 707 6060.
Screening for bowel cancer is done using a home testing kit called a faecal occult blood test. Tiny stool samples are taken, and sent back to the laboratory to be tested for the presence of blood.
A new test, which involves examining the lower bowel with a camera (also called flexi-scope), is also being introduced. This is a one-off bowel cancer test offered to people aged 55.
What can I do to reduce my risk of bowel cancer?
Eating a lot of red meat and processed meat has been linked with bowel cancer. The government advises that people who eat more than 90g (cooked weight) of red or processed meat each day should cut back to 70g or less. For more information on how this can help and what constitutes a good portion size for red meat, read Red meat and bowel cancer.
In general, a healthy lifestyle reduces the risk of many diseases, including bowel cancer. A ‘healthy lifestyle’ includes:
- maintaining a healthy weight
- keeping physically active
- eating a healthy diet
- drinking less alcohol
- stopping smoking if you smoke
Analysis by Bazian. Edited by NHS Choices. Follow Behind the Headlines on Twitter.