Drinkaware is an independent charity working to reduce alcohol misuse and harm in the UK. We're here to help people make better choices about drinking.
Bowel cancer (also known as colorectal cancer) is one of the most common types of cancer in the UK, and there were 41,265 people diagnosed with it in 20141. As with most forms of cancer there are many risk factors, and among these is a clear link between drinking and occurrence of this life threatening disease.
Spotting the symptoms early can mean a full recovery, and reducing your alcohol intake is just one of the ways you can mitigate the risk of bowel cancer.
Bowel cancer is the common term for cancer which starts in the colon or rectum. This type of cancer is more common in older people (about nine out of 10 people with bowel cancer are over 60)2. However, it’s important to be aware that it can occur at any age and is, in fact, second only to lung cancer in causing cancer-related deaths in the UK.
Identifying bowel cancer warning signs early can go a long way to ensuring successful treatment. Common things to look out for include:
- Any change in bowel habit– If you need to go to the toilet more frequently, or your faeces is looser, this could be a sign of bowel cancer
- Blood in stool– Coupled with the above, this is one of the most common signs of bowel cancer. You should see your GP immediately if this occurs
- Abdominal pain– Are you experiencing persistent tummy pain or discomfort, especially after eating? It’s best to get this looked at as soon as you can
- Anaemia– This can cause fatigue and paleness of skin due to a lack of red blood cells and can result from rectal bleeding which is otherwise unnoticeable
It is important to remember that though these symptoms could all point to a possible case of bowel cancer, they also can also result from many non-life-threatening illnesses, such as haemorrhoids (piles) or food poisoning.
If you notice any of the above symptoms, don’t panic, but make an appointment to see your GP straight away. More than 90% of people survive from bowel cancer for five years or more if it’s caught early enough3.
Alcohol can be linked to at least seven types of cancer. There have been several studies into the links between excessive alcohol consumption and the risk of developing bowel cancer.
A key paper from 20114 found an increased risk of bowel cancer for those who are drinking one drink (or 10g of alcohol) a day, which includes light alcohol drinkers. The study also found that the risk increases with the amount consumed and that for moderate drinkers the relative risk was higher for men than for women. The fact that there was a slightly higher risk for men than for women could be because we break down alcohol differently depending on our gender.
Another significant study is the 2007 European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC)5 which established a clear link between drinking more than 30g of alcohol a day (3.75 units or around one and a half regular glasses of 13% wine) and bowel cancer.
Further evidence for the link between alcohol and bowel cancer is provided in a 2015 study6 which focused on the consumption of beer, and found that drinking two or more beers per day was linked with an increased risk of bowel cancer when compared with non-drinkers or occasional drinkers.
Bowel cancer screening is a way of detecting bowel cancer at an earlier stage which can massively increase the chances of survival. Screening is important because it can detect cancer before it causes any obvious symptoms.
The FOB (faecal occult blood) test is offered to all men and women aged 60-74. A free home test kit is sent through the post every two years. This should be returned to the NHS who then test for traces of blood in the sample.
Bowel scope screening is an additional one-off test offered to men and women from the age of 55. A camera and light on a flexible tube is used to detect small growths, called polyps, that can turn into cancer.
For more information about bowel screening, including how to order a home test kit or find out if bowel screening is available near you, call the bowel cancer screening helpline on 0800 707 60 60.
The best place to start is with the UK Chief Medical Officers' (CMO) low risk drinking guidelines which advise that to keep health risks, including cancer, from alcohol to a low level it is safest not to drink more than 14 units a week on a regular basis. If you regularly drink as much as 14 units per week, it's best to spread your drinking evenly over three or more days. The risk of developing a range of health problems (including cancers of the mouth, throat and breast) increases the more you drink on a regular basis
If you wish to cut down the amount you drink, a good way to help achieve this is to have several drink-free days a week.
The thought that a drink a day can potentially increase your risk of bowel cancer is a sobering one, but, luckily, changing the way you drink can help to reduce that risk. If you’re often tempted by the idea of a drink at the end of a long day, why not try some of our tips for cutting down at home? Follow our practical steps to take action, and have a think about whether you’re ready to cut down.
However, just as alcohol is potentially only one contributory factor for bowel cancer, simply reducing alcohol intake is not enough to remove the risk of developing it. Professor Robert Steele, a bowel cancer expert, recommends a diet high in fibre and low in red meat. This, along with regular exercise, should help to maintain a healthy weight, which is key to protecting your body from the risk of bowel cancer.
Also, if you smoke, try to give up, not only is smoking linked to bowel cancer, it can also cause lung cancer, mouth cancer and many other life-threatening illnesses.
Finally, don’t forget to take the opportunity to be screened for bowel cancer. You can either complete the stool test that is sent by post (the faecal occult blood (FOB) test) or have a telescope test (bowel scope screening) using a thin tube with a camera at the end that looks inside the bowel.
Around one in 20 cases of bowel cancer (5%) occur in people who have other family members with bowel cancer7. So, if you have a history of bowel cancer in the family, it’s very important to be screened regularly, especially if you are over 60 years old.
- There were around 41,900 new cases of bowel cancer in the UK in 2012, that’s around 115 people every day9.
- 54% of bowel cancer cases each year in the UK are linked to major lifestyle and other risk factors.2
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Last reviewed: 17 November 2017
Next review due: 17 November 2020