April is Bowel (also called colon or colorectal) cancer awareness month

By: Dr Frances Drummond | Posted on: 26 Apr 2020

April is Bowel (also called colon or colorectal) cancer awareness month

During April 2020, most of the attention has been on the newest disease to affect people, Covid-19.  While a serious health concern, we cannot forget about our overall health.  Cancer is the most common cause of death in Ireland, having overtaken cardiovascular disease.

April is Bowel (also called colon or colorectal) awareness month.   Colon cancer is very common. It is the 2nd most common cancers diagnosed in men, and the 3rd in women.  Every year, 2700 people are diagnosed with colon cancer.   Colon cancer is also the 2nd most common cause of cancer death in men, and the 3rd in women.  Every year 1000 people die from the disease in Ireland. 

Source: NCRI

Over the last 20 years, the number of people surviving for 5 years or more after a colon cancer diagnosis has increased.  Latest data from the National Cancer Registry Ireland (NCRI) shows that 6 in 10 people with colon cancer will survive for 5 years or more.

A recent study compared the survival rate of cancers at 7 different sites in the body across 7 high-income countries, including Ireland.1  This study found that Ireland has the 2nd lowest colon cancer survival of these 7  countries. 

So, while Ireland is making good progress in colon cancer survival, there is room for improvement.

Screening

The risk of colon cancer increases as you get older. The national screening programme in Ireland invites people aged between 60 and 69 to take a bowel screening test every 2 years.  This simple home test involves taking a sample of poo at home.  This is posted back to a lab, and this sample is checked for blood.  If there is blood you will be referred to a clinic for further tests.

Colon cancer during Covid-19

Anne Murphy was Ireland’s first advanced nurse practitioner (ANP) in colorectal nursing. Anne has been developing diagnostic and therapeutic services in colon cancer in Cork University Hospital for a number of years and she advocates for healthy lifestyle choices for patients and their families.

Anne looks after people from before their bowel cancer diagnosis, through surgery and beyond. Anne told that Covid-19 is having an impact.  Covid-19 means that these are even more challenging times for bowel cancer patients and people with symptoms.  However, Anne stresses the importance of seeking help for those with symptoms.  “Please do not ignore any symptoms because you are afraid to come to the hospital.  We have not cancelled our symptomatic clinics.  All recommended precautions to keep patients and staff safe have been taken”. 

Colon Cancer Symptoms

Anne emphasised the symptoms of colon cancer to watch out for.  She says “If there is any change in the way your bowel works, if you have bleeding or pains in your stomach that is not going away, then please contact your GP and get a referral to the hospital.”

Ger Staunton, who was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2016 described his symptoms which started when he was on holidays “I just did not feel right. I thought it was the change of diet or maybe too much alcohol, but I was waking up most nights to go to the bathroom. Sometimes there was blood in my stool…I had lost weight. I gave it a few more weeks, but the bleeding did not stop, and I continued to lose weight, so I went to my GP.”  Ger said “Regular screening, especially if you are over 50, is vital to detect this horrible cancer at an early stage when it is easier to treat.”

The message is that for anyone who had cancer or is dealing with cancer it is not easy now as our hospitals are preoccupied with Covid-19.  Also, during this health emergency, it has largely gone unnoticed that April is Bowel Cancer Awareness month.  However, to further improve bowel cancer survival, the message from Anne and Ger is know the symptoms, don’t ignore any symptoms  - seek help and screening saves lives.

  1. Lancet Oncol 2019; 20: 1493–505 http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/ S1470-2045(19)30456-5

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