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Don't sit on your bottom and ignore the symptoms of bowel cancer

19 Apr 2016

Professor Neil Mortenson

This is Bowel Cancer Awareness Month which provides an opportunity to remind people how common a cancer it is: our fourth most common in the UK. The good news is, it can be readily cured, if picked up early and treated promptly.

During my time as a colon surgeon, I have seen a transformation in the outcomes for patients with colorectal cancer. Twenty-five years ago surgery for colon cancer would have meant a 10-day stay in hospital, a long abdominal scar and a prolonged period of recovery. Worse than this, a third of patients would have advanced disease with cancer spread to the liver at the time of first diagnosis. Three factors have changed this picture beyond recognition.

Greater awareness of the symptoms and at last an increased readiness to talk about the colon have meant patients being more assertive in seeking investigations.

The bowel cancer screening programme starting in 2006 has completely changed our surgical practice. Cancers are being detected before they cause any symptoms. Now we have patients with small or early cancers who are otherwise well. They have a keyhole operation, recover very quickly, and are out of hospital in 3 or 4 days or less. Today’s 60-year-olds are fitter than ever before and are highly motivated.

The operations themselves have become smaller and easier to both accept and get over. Technology has had a big influence. And a patient having surgery for a stage 1 cancer will have an 80-90% chance of cure, and no need for any more treatment. When the outlook is so good why do we find so many people ignoring their symptoms or refusing the invitation to screening?

I have heard  lots of excuses - I was too busy, I was scared of what the tests might find, I was scared of the tests, I was scared of having to have a bag … but I haven’t heard too many people say they regret having had a colonoscopy. It’s such an easy test - yes I’ve had one myself.

Bleeding from the bottom can be both alarming and falsely reassuring. Most commonly due to piles, patients and their doctors too readily expect that’s what it is. Any bleeding persisting for more than a week or so, or occurring when there are no other symptoms of piles, needs to be taken seriously and properly investigated.

It used to be a bit of a Cinderella subject, but colon cancer is now being taken seriously by the government, the NHS and medical staff. The unique ability for us to be able to check on the lining of the colon, and see the development of a polyp into a full blown cancer means we can prevent cancers by taking off the polyps at colonoscopy. There are specialist teams of surgeons, imaging experts on CT and MRI, pathologists and cancer experts meeting every week around the country to help choose the best treatments and drive up success rates.

This is a good news story so why not become part of it? Don’t just sit on your bottom and ignore those symptoms, or the invitation to a screening programme.

Follow these links for further information about symptoms and bowel cancer:

NHS Choices
Cancer Research UK
Beating Bowel Cancer
Bowel Cancer UK

Professor Neil Mortensen is Professor of Colorectal Surgery in the University of Oxford Medical School and a Council Member of the Royal College.

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