This Bowel Cancer Awareness Month let’s look at whether what you eat and how much physical activity you do could be affecting your risk of bowel cancer.
A closer look at bowel cancer
Bowel cancer, also known as colorectal cancer, starts when cells in the lining of the bowel are damaged and then grow uncontrollably, forming a tumour.
It is the 4th most common cancer in the UK and in 2019, 44,706 cases of bowel cancer were diagnosed. However, 54 per cent of bowel cancer cases could be prevented.
Lifestyle risk factors
- Eating too much red and processed meat
- Not eating enough whole grains and fibre
- Living with overweight or obesity
- Not doing enough physical activity (colon cancer only)
- Drinking alcohol
- Smoking tobacco
Other risk factors
- Age – risk increases as you get older
- Family history of bowel cancer
- Personal history of polyps or inflammatory bowel disease
How can people reduce their risk of bowel cancer?
World Cancer Research Fund has strong evidence that eating any amount of processed meat and eating too much red meat can increase the risk of bowel cancer. We recommend that people eat no more than three portions (350–500g cooked weight) of red meat a week and avoid processed meat altogether.
A recent World Cancer Research Fund poll found that 57% of Brits are unaware that processed meat is a cause of bowel cancer and that bacon is the nation’s favourite sandwich filling. Why not take part in the Great British Sarnie Swap and swap out the processed meat in your sandwich for a healthier alternative?
Eating a healthy diet rich in whole grains and fibre can help protect against bowel cancer. Wholegrains include oats, brown rice, wholemeal bread, and wholewheat pasta – all foods that are also high in fibre. Other foods high in fibre include pulses like beans and lentils. Vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds are also good sources of fibre.
Be a healthy weight
Maintaining a healthy weight and avoiding weight gain in later life can reduce the risk of bowel cancer. Eating a healthy diet and being physically active can help you maintain a healthy weight.
Be more active
Being physically active can help people to maintain a healthy weight. It also helps food to move through the digestive system more quickly, which may also help protect against bowel cancer.
In the UK it’s recommended to do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity a week. If you aren’t currently active, aim to gradually increase how much you do. Even 5 minutes at a time is a great start. You might be surprised to learn that gardening and household chores (if you get slightly breathless) count as moderate-intensity activities, so you might already be doing more than you think.
Don’t drink alcohol
World Cancer Research Fund has found that there is strong evidence that drinking alcohol increases the risk of bowel cancer. When it comes to cancer prevention, it’s best not to drink any alcohol as it also increases the risk of several other cancers.
Smoking increases the risk of bowel cancer. However, the sooner a person stops smoking the sooner they will be reducing their risk. It’s never too late to stop.
What about screening?
Early diagnosis is incredibly important as most bowel cancer cases can be successfully treated if found early. It’s important that people take part in NHS bowel cancer screening whenever they are invited.
How to change habits?
It can be hard to change habits – World Cancer Research Fund encourages people to start with one thing at a time. To help support people to eat better and get more active, from mid-April we are launching Activ8 – a free 8-week online healthy living programme. It focuses on different themes each week and includes weekly recipes, inspiring videos, and expert nutrition and activity tips.
Whether you take part in the Sarnie Swap or Activ8, this Bowel Cancer Awareness Month you can help reduce your risk of bowel cancer.
Melanie Marks Purnode is an experienced communication consultant specialising in health and international development.