April is bowel cancer awareness month, and a great opportunity to focus on one of the most common types of cancer in the UK.

 05 April 2016 at 16:42, by Casey Dunlop, health information officer at Cancer Research UK

Bowel cancer is the fourth most common cancer in both men and women. And while research means survival is improving, the rates of people being diagnosed with the disease are also rising. A whole range of factors play into this, not least the fact that more people in the UK are living to an older age when cancer is more common. There isn’t much anyone can do about getting older, but we also know that more than half of bowel cancer cases are linked to lifestyle factors – which are much more within our control.

Making small changes to our day-to-day lives can make a big difference to the risk of developing bowel cancer. 

Six ways to reduce your risk of bowel cancer

1. Eat more fresh chicken, fish and meat-free meals

People who eat a diet low in processed and red meat are less likely to develop bowel cancer. Around one in five cases of bowel cancer in the UK are linked to eating too much processed and red meat. Although researchers aren’t sure exactly why this is, the main culprits appear to be certain chemicals in the meat itself.

While a bacon sandwich every now and then isn’t going to do much harm, if you’re eating a lot of processed and red meat then it’s a good idea to try to cut down. Try swapping it for fresh chicken and fish, bulking out meals with beans and vegetables to use smaller portions of meat, or choosing meat-free meals like vegetable lasagnes, curries and pasta bakes.

If you need ideas, Change4life has a great range of healthier recipes.

2. Keep a healthy weight

Keeping a healthy weight not only cuts your risk of bowel cancer, but could also reduce your risk of nine other types of cancer too. Researchers think this is because excess fat in our bodies can change our hormone levels and produce chemical messengers, which in turn can increase cancer risk.

But crash diets probably won’t help people lose weight in the long term. The best way to lose weight (and keep it off for good) is by making small changes to your daily life that you can stick to – like cutting down on sugary drinks, keeping an eye on food labels, and walking more.

CRUK's website has more tips on how to keep a healthy weight, or visit Change4life.

3. Eat more fibre

Eating a diet high in fibre helps reduce the risk of bowel cancer in a number of ways. And one of the main ones seems to be by helping food pass through your body more quickly.

Fruit, vegetables, beans and lentils are all great sources of fibre, as well as whole grain varieties of bread, pasta and cereals. Meals don’t need to get fancy to get in more fibre. Think beans on wholemeal toast, brown pasta rather than white, and beans and peas in casseroles.

4. Drink less alcohol

We’re not saying you have to go tee-total, but it’s important to know the less you drink the lower your risk (it’s not just heavy drinking that’s linked to cancer).

So if you are going to drink alcohol, stick to the guidelines – that’s a maximum of 14 units of alcohol a week, spread evenly over at least three days. Drink free days are a good way to cut down on the total amount of alcohol you drink. Also try choosing smaller servings, drinks with lower ABVs – or cutting down on the alcohol in your drink by making it a shandy or wine spritzer.

5. Be smokefree

Smoking doesn’t just cause lung cancer. It causes at least 13 other types of cancer (including bowel) as well as heart disease and various lung diseases. Chemicals in cigarette smoke enter the bloodstream and can affect the entire body – and it’s these that have been shown to damage our DNA and lead to cancer.

If you smoke and you want to quit, you’re much more likely to quit successfully if you get professional support rather than going it alone. There’s a whole range of free services to help keep you on track, including prescription medication and different types of support.

Speak to your GP or pharmacist, or visit NHS Smokefree for free advice and support.

6. Be active

Keeping active has a wide range of benefits for the body, including reducing the risk of bowel cancer. This is through helping food move through the bowel more quickly, as well as controlling inflammation.

It can be easier than you think to be more active, even if you don’t do much at the moment. Aim to do at least two and a half hours of moderate activity (e.g. brisk walking) a week – it may sound like a lot but you don’t need to do it all in one go – that’s just over 20 minutes each day. Build up how active you are over time. Try walking part of the way to work, and taking the stairs rather than the escalator or lift.

The more active you are, the greater the benefits you can gain – but remember it’s never too late to start.

And if you notice something unusual, talk to your doctor

Although it won’t strictly reduce your risk of developing bowel cancer, we couldn’t write this post without mentioning early diagnosis. Bowel cancer can develop at any age, but more than eight in 10 cases are diagnosed in people aged 60 and over, so this is especially important advice for older people.

When bowel cancer is diagnosed in the early stages, before it’s had time to get too big or spread, more than nine in 10 people will survive for at least five years. But when it’s found at a later stage, there may be fewer options to try to cure it, so the chances of survival are lower.

Get to know what’s normal for you, and tell your GP if you see blood in your poo, or about any change to your bowel habit – such as looser poo, pooing more often, and/or constipation – pain or a lump in your tummy, or losing weight without any reason. All of these are likely to be caused by something much less serious than bowel cancer, but it’s best to get them or any other unusual changes checked out by your GP.

Bowel cancer screening is for healthy people, without any signs or symptoms of the disease. If you’ve noticed something unusual, whatever your screening history, you should see your GP.

In England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, bowel screening tests are offered to people aged 60-74 every two years. In Scotland it’s offered from the age of 50. If you’re registered with a GP this test is sent automatically to your home in the post.

Unfortunately, the number of people taking up their bowel screening invitation is not as high as it could be. So we’re encouraging more people to consider taking part. We’re running campaigns in parts of the UK to see if using posters, letters, and kits to help people do the test more easily can make a difference by breaking down barriers to participation.

Small changes can make a big difference

Making changes doesn’t have to mean a massive overhaul of your lifestyle – if it’s something you do most days, even a small change can add up to a big difference.

And remember, if you do spot anything that’s unusual for you, it’s worth going to your GP to get it checked out. And if a bowel screening kit pops through your letter box, taking part is easier than you think.

Casey Dunlop is a health information officer at Cancer Research UK