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.

What is 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. 

Symptoms of bowel cancer

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.

The link between alcohol and bowel cancer

Alcohol can be strongly linked to at least seven types of cancer. On bowel cancer specifically, there have been several studies into the links between excessive alcohol consumption and the risk of developing this.

One of the most significant of these was the 2007 European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) study which established a clear link between excessive alcohol intake and bowel cancer. The study found that lifetime alcohol intake was associated with bowel cancer and can increase your risk of getting the disease by 23% increase4.

Further evidence for the link between alcohol and bowel cancer is provided in a 2015 paper from the Department of Colorectal Surgery at Shanghai Jiao Tong University. This particular study focused on the consumption of beer, and found that regular beer drinkers had a 20% increased risk of bowel cancer when compared with non-drinkers or occasional drinkers5. Furthermore, the study concluded that drinking just one more beer a day was associated with an increased likelihood of colorectal cancer6.

However, both of these studies indicated that light or moderate drinking, for example regularly drinking within the low risk unit guidelines, was not related to increased risk of developing bowel cancer. Also, 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.

Finally a further link was made when the International Agency for Research on Cancer conducted a study which found that having more than one drink a day could increase your risk of bowel cancer7.

Bowel cancer screening

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. 

Reducing the risk of bowel cancer

The thought that as little as one 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 not the sole cause of 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 (FOC) 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 cancer8. 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.

Lifestyle changes

Ultimately, making healthier lifestyle choices is the best way to protect your body and reduce the risk of bowel cancer. If you need a way to keep track of your drinking and ensure you stay motivated, why not try our desktop MyDrinkaware tool or the mobile phone Track and Calculate Units app? Drinking less, eating better and exercising more are all excellent ways to keep you and your family as healthy as possible.

Bowel cancer facts

  • 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. 

 

References

(1) Cancer Research UK website. Bowel cancer statistics. The Information Standard member organisation. Last reviewed: not known. Available at: http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/health-professional/cancer-statistics/statistics-by-cancer-type/bowel-cancer

(2) NHS Choices website. Bowel Cancer. The Information Standard member organisation. Last reviewed: 2/9/14. Available at: http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/cancer-of-the-colon-rectum-or-bowel/pages/introduction.aspx/o'bowel%20screening%20video%20clip/t_blank

(3) Cancer Research UK website. Alcohol and cancer. The Information Standard member organisation. Last reviewed: 18/8/15. Available at: http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/type/bowel-cancer/about/screening/about-bowel-cancer-screening

(4) Ferrari P at al, 2007, 'Alcohol intake and the risk of bowel cancer'. EPIC Oxford, Int J Cancer, pp. 2065-72. Available at: http://www.epic-oxford.org/publications/1428/alcohol-intake-and-risk-of-bowel-cancer

(5) Zhang C1, Zhong M., 2015, ‘Consumption of beer and colorectal cancer incidence: a meta-analysis of observational studies’ Cancer Causes Control, vol. 26, no. 4, pp 549-6. Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25677844

(6) V. Fedirka et al, 2011, ‘Alcohol drinking and colorectal cancer risk: an overall and dose–response meta-analysis of published studies’, Annals of Oncology, vol. 22, no. 9, pp. 1958-1972 Available at: http://annonc.oxfordjournals.org/content/22/9/1958.long

(7)Cancer Research UK website. Bowel cancer statistics. The Information Standard member organisation. Last reviewed: not known. Accessed: 30/11/15. Available at: http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/health-professional/cancer-statistics/statistics-by-cancer-type/bowel-cancer#heading-Zero

(8)Cancer Research UK website.  Inherited genes and cancer types. The Information Standard member organisation. Last reviewed: 2/6/15. Available at: http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/causes-of-cancer/inherited-cancer-genes-and-increased-cancer-risk/inherited-genes-and-cancer-types#inherited_genes0

(9)Cancer Research UK website. Bowel cancer statistics. The Information Standard member organisation. Last reviewed: not known. Available at: http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/health-professional/cancer-statistics/statistics-by-cancer-type/bowel-cancer#heading-Zero