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Hugh Wilson
15 November 2011 11:40 | By Hugh Wilson, contributor, MSN Him

Bowel cancer: know the facts

Bowel cancer know the facts (© Geoff Moore-Rex Features)

More men are being diagnosed with bowel cancer, but it's a disease that can be beaten.

A report from Cancer Research UK published last month found that a man's chances of contracting bowel cancer (also referred to as colorectal cancer) have doubled since the 1970s.

In 1975, the lifetime risk of contracting the disease was one in 29. Today, it's one in 15. And though a woman's risk has also increased, the rise is less pronounced.

Why are so many men now at risk of bowel cancer, and what can we all do to minimise our chances of getting the disease? Here are the facts all men need to know.

How prevalent is bowel cancer?

Bowel cancer is Britain's third most common cancer, with nearly 40,000 people diagnosed with the disease every year. It's the second biggest cancer killer after lung cancer.

According to the charity Bowel Cancer UK, someone in this country is diagnosed with the disease every 15 minutes.

Who gets bowel cancer?

Both men and women get bowel cancer, but in 2008 over 4,000 more men were diagnosed. The latest figures from Cancer Research UK suggest that the gap is likely to increase.

"These new figures do not come as a surprise," says Mark Flannagan, chief executive of charity Beating Bowel Cancer. "Bowel cancer incidence is steadily increasing and, as these figures show, men do have a slightly higher risk of developing the disease than women."

Beating Bowel Cancer campaign banner (© John Stillwell-PA Archive-Press Association Images)

According to charity Beating Bowel Cancer, men have a slightly higher risk of developing bowel cancer than women

Bowel cancer is to some extent a disease of aging, and your risk increases greatly after the age of 50. The authors of the Cancer Research study think that one of the main reasons our lifetime risk is increasing is because we're living longer.

"As people are living longer the numbers getting cancer have increased and the lifetime risk of developing bowel cancer has gone up," said epidemiologist Professor Peter Sasieni, an author of the report.

But it's not just the middle aged and elderly that get bowel cancer. Around 2,000 cases are diagnosed in the under 50s every year, and figures obtained in 2009 showed that there had been a 120% rise in cases in people under 30 in just 10 years.

On Bing: more facts and figures about bowel cancer

What are the risk factors?

Age is a major risk factor for bowel cancer. Around 95% of cases are diagnosed in people over 50. But that's no reason to be complacent. Bowel cancer can strike considerably younger men, and the lifestyle factors you adopt now can help to increase or reduce your risk of the disease in years to come.

Family history is also a factor. If you have a first degree relative (parent, sibling or child) who was diagnosed with the disease before the age of 45 it's worth letting your GP know if they don't already, because they may be able to arrange extra screening.

The same is true if you have two first degree relatives who contracted bowel cancer at any age. Experts aren't 100% certain about the causes of the disease, but hereditary factors appear to have some significance.

And after genetics comes lifestyle. You know the drill by now. Exercise, eat plenty of fruit, veg and fibre, cut down your alcohol intake and quit smoking. They're all thought to be risk factors for bowel cancer, as for so much else.

A selection of sausages, ham and salami (© DAJ-amana images-Getty Images)

Excessive consumption of processed meats like bacon, ham and salami is believed to increase the risk of developing bowel cancer

Your meat intake is something else to think about. Red meat is thought to increase your risk of the disease. But an even stronger link exists with processed meats like bacon, sausage, ham and salami.

In May this year the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) published the most authoritative report yet on the links between diet and bowel cancer.

"On meat, the clear message that comes out of our report is that red and processed meat increase risk of bowel cancer and that people who want to reduce their risk should consider cutting down the amount they eat," said Professor Alan Jackson, chair of the WCRF.

On Bing: how much red meat is it OK to eat?

What are the symptoms of bowel cancer?

The first thing to say is that if you're an otherwise healthy young man you're unlikely to have bowel cancer, even if you notice one of the following symptoms. But you must get them checked out, just in case.

One obvious symptom is a change in your normal bowel habit that lasts four weeks or more, perhaps involving more constipation or more runny stools. A good idea is to get to know your bowel habits now so you'll know when something's wrong.

Doctor and patient (© Jose Luis Pelaez Inc-Blend Images-Getty Images)

If you experience any symptoms that relate to bowel cancer, don't hesitate to get them checked out by your GP

Bleeding from the bottom or blood in stools is also a symptom of bowel cancer, though it could easily be piles (haemorrhoids). Also look out for unexplained extreme tiredness and/or unexplained weight loss, and a pain or lump in your abdomen.

On Bing: read more about the symptoms of bowel cancer

Most symptoms will not be bowel cancer, but they need to be checked out anyway. And the good news is that - if caught early - bowel cancer is a treatable disease. The chances of surviving for 10 years after diagnosis is now close to 90% when the disease is caught in its early stages.

So remember, more men may be getting bowel cancer, but that's at least partly because more men are living longer. And the positive news is that some basic lifestyle changes can cut your risk dramatically. Make bowel health a priority.

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