The Health Index
Bowel or colorectal cancer is the third most common cause of cancer-related death in the UK. In 2017, about 23,500 men and 18,600 women were diagnosed with the disease. Bowel cancer mostly affects the large intestine, followed by the rectum. Bowel cancer is a malignant growth of cells in the lining of the large intestine (colon). In most cases the tumour develops from so-called intestinal polyps.
The large intestine begins in the right lower abdomen, where it follows on to the small intestine. In the left lower abdomen, it passes into the rectum, which ends at the anus. Only tumours located between the appendix and the beginning of the rectum are called colorectal carcinoma.
What are the causes?
Bowel cancer often develops from colonic polyps. In addition to certain pre-disposing diseases and genetic factors, an unhealthy lifestyle is also considered a risk factor.
Diseases that increase the likelihood for the development of bowel cancer include chronic inflammatory bowel diseases such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease. Too little exercise, overweight and smoking are considered important risk factors for the development of bowel cancer.
Excessive alcohol consumption and high consumption of processed meat may also increase the likelihood of developing the disease. On the other hand, it is considered beneficial to avoid obesity, eat a high-fibre diet and eat more fruit and vegetables.
What are the symptoms bowel cancer?
The tricky thing about bowel cancer is that in most cases it causes little or no symptoms in its early stages. For that reason, it is often only discovered in the later stages, when it attracts attention through serious complications, and it is often too late for a cure. Blood in the stool can indicate bowel cancer. Sometimes there is so little blood in the stool that it cannot be seen with the naked eye.
This is called ‘occult blood’ and can be detected in a lab. Often, the constant loss of blood is only noticed as anaemia in a blood count test. A change in stool habits should also be noticed: sudden diarrhoea, constipation or alternating between both can be a sign of bowel cancer.
Other possible symptoms are reduced performance, tiredness, unexplained weight loss or fever. Sometimes severe stomach pain is the only symptom. In the later stages, bowel obstruction (ileus) can also occur, when the patient may complain of massive colicky abdominal pain. If the cancer grows into the nerve plexus in front of the sacrum, it can cause severe sciatica-like pain.
How can a nutrition practitioner help?
If you have been diagnosed with bowel cancer and are being treated, your nutrition practitioner will work alongside your medical team. Knowing how, what and when to eat while on cancer treatment can have a considerable impact on how you feel during treatment.
A nutritional approach always depends on the individual case but may focus on diet and lifestyle interventions generally used to prevent or manage inflammation, which may help reduce pain and speed up recovery. A nutrition practitioner will ask questions about your overall health and health history, diet, lifestyle and exercise habits.
They will look at your food diary to see where there may be room for improvement. Your nutrition practitioner may also recommend functional testing. They will then develop a customised diet, supplement and lifestyle plan for you.