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CPD: Bowel Cancer

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CPD: Bowel Cancer

Since April is Bowel Cancer Awareness Month, there is no better time to brush up on your knowledge about this disease, which is the second most common cause of cancer death in the UK.

Symptoms of bowel cancer include the following:

  • a persistent change in bowel habit - patients often need to go to the toilet more regularly and may find that they pass looser stools that may contain blood
  • Blood in the stools without other haemorrhoidal symptoms (e.g. itching or pain in the back passage)
  • Abdominal pain, discomfort or bloating, which is precipitated by eating
  • Lump in the abdomen or back passage
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Extreme tiredness

Symptoms of bowel cancer can be subtle and many patients who develop one or more of the symptoms above will often self-medicate with over-the-counter indigestion/diarrhoea remedies. Pharmacists are ideally placed to identify symptoms which may be associated with cancer and refer patients to their GP if suspected.

The earlier that bowel cancer is diagnosed, the more effective the disease is to treat and the greater the prognosis. In fact, around 90% of people that are diagnosed with the earliest stage of bowel cancer go on to live more than five years

Bowel cancer is strongly linked to age, with the vast majority of bowel cancer cases occurring in those aged 60 years or over. It is also more common in those who are overweight, less active, smoke, drink alcohol, eat a diet high in red meat and low in fibre, and those who have a close family relative who developed the disease under the age of 50 years.

In an attempt to facilitate the early detection of bowel cancer, the NHS runs UK screening programmes to anyone between the ages of 60-74 who is registered with a GP. Patients who fall within these ages will continually be invited to take part in screening every two years (until the age of 75). Screening utilises the faecal occult blood (FOB) test kits which are sent to the homes of eligible patients. The FOB test looks for hidden blood in the bowel movements and involves taking a small sample of stool on three separate days and posting the kit back to the screening centre using the pre-paid envelope. Results of testing are normally received within 2 weeks. The detection of blood does not indicate presence of bowel cancer (as non-cancerous growths or other complaints may be responsible) but a positive test warrants further investigation.

In the event that a patient is diagnosed with bowel cancer, several treatment options may be employed which will depend largely on the severity and metastasis of the cancer. Surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy, and biological treatments may be utilised.

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