Demystifying Bowel Cancer

bowel cancer

Demystifying Bowel Cancer

Talking about bowel cancer is a serious matter, despite the fact that the language around it provides an almost never-ending source of bad puns. New Zealand’s rates of bowel cancer are some of the highest in the world, and within our southern region of the South Island the rates are the highest in the country, which makes it a pretty significant health issue for those of us who live here.

Bowel cancer often starts as small, non-cancerous polyps that form on the walls of the large intestine (bowel). Over time, some of these polyps may become cancerous. If the polyps do become cancerous, the cancer cells can spread to the lymph nodes and bloodstream to other parts of the body, most commonly the liver and the lungs. You can learn more about this process here:

There are some risk factors for bowel cancer that you cannot change. A history of bowel cancer can unfortunately “run in the family” and you need to be especially aware of the risk if you have a close family member who has developed bowel cancer under the age of 55.  It is also more prevalent  in older people and in people who suffer from some chronic diseases such as Type 2 Diabetes, Crohns and Ulcerative Colitis.

The risks you can manage are those which are generally recommended to maintain good health : low alcohol consumption, regular exercise, maintaining a healthy weight,  healthy nutrition and not smoking.

Studies have shown that regular bowel screening can save lives by helping to find cancer early, when it can often be successfully treated. People who are diagnosed with bowel cancer and receive treatment at an early stage, have a 90% chance of long-term survival. If there is a delay in diagnosis and treatment, the cancer can become more advanced and harder to cure.

Bowel screening is for people who don’t have symptoms of bowel cancer. If you have any symptoms that concern you, you should see your doctor straight away.

The three main symptoms of bowel cancer are:

  • Blood in your bowel motions – this may look like red blood or black bowel motions
  • A change in bowel habits that continues for several weeks, such as diarrhoea, constipation, or feeling that your bowel doesn’t empty completely
  • General abdominal discomfort (frequent gas pains, bloating or cramps) that can be confused with indigestion.

The free National Bowel Screening programme is now being rolled out in our region. It is being offered to all men and women aged 60 – 74 years who are eligible for publically funded health care.

When it is your turn to be screened (which will probably be around the time of your next birthday), you will be sent an invitation letter, a consent form and a free testing kit through the mail. The test is done at home and is clean and simple to do. It looks for traces of blood in a small sample of your bowel motion, because this can be an early sign that something is wrong. You will be contacted about your screening results within 3 weeks of returning your kit. A negative result will be advised through the mail. If your test shows that further investigation is needed then you will be contacted by your usual medical practice. A positive test does not necessarily mean you have bowel cancer, but it means things need further checking out – usually by way of a colonoscopy.

More information about bowel cancer causes and treatment options is available at