Be aware of bowel cancer

April 3rd, 2017 5:00 PM

By Southern Star Team

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Health & Nutrition with Rosie Shelley

‘We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails.’

-- Anonymous

April is Bowel Cancer Awareness Month, and the number of Irish people receiving a diagnosis each year has now exceeded 2500. Raising awareness is seldom more useful than it is in this case, for several reasons: bowel (or colon or colorectal) cancer is the second most common cause of cancer death in Ireland; left too late the outlook is indeed poor, but caught early it actually has an excellent average 90% survival rate; and bowel cancer is avoidable in an astonishing 40-90% of cases.

So do see your doctor if you’re experiencing any of the following: a change in frequency of bowel movement; alternating between diarrhoea and constipation; bleeding or mucus from the back passage; a feeling of incomplete emptying of the bowel; unexplained weight loss; a lump or unexplained bloating in the abdominal area; pain or discomfort in the abdominal area or back passage; anaemia, fatigue or breathlessness (this may be due to internal bleeding). 

For the avoidance of this cancer in particular, the message is to cut back on animal products—especially ones that have been meddled with such as processed meats and trans fats. Eating even small amounts of sausages and rashers raises the risk by 20%, and the World Health Organisation has warned that too much red meat is now considered a risk factor. Avoid burnt meats, and to mitigate the harmful effects you can marinade your meat or season it with antioxidant herbs and spices. And new research confirms that we need to watch out for overcooked carbohydrates too: things like burnt toast, roast potatoes, crisps, breakfast cereals and biscuits, as well as microwaved foods, carry a cancer-causing compound called acrylamide.  

Go for a more plant-based diet full of fibre and cell-protective antioxidants. Sugars and refined grains (or elevated insulin levels) are fuel sources for tumours and devoid of nutrients and fibre. Only 20% of Irish adults get enough fibre, which is central to the prevention of bowel cancer. Among the latest research on the importance of antioxidants here are studies showing that coffee drinkers have a 26% reduced risk, as do daily broccoli eaters, and those eating the most garlic had a 50% lower risk. Other recently proven risk-reducing foods and drinks include brown rice, corn, pulses (beans and lentils), ginger, turmeric, herbs, plums/prunes, green and especially white tea (the kind you find in the healthfood shop). The key is that they all exert an anti-inflammatory action, and bowel cancer is even more than some others a disease of inflammation. Folate, from leafy greens and pulses, is so valuable here that folinic acid is used in medications for bowel cancer.      

We are privileged in that most of our cattle are grass-fed, meaning that their meat has higher levels of cancer-fighting fatty acids such as CLAs and omega-3s, so it’s probably not necessary to cut out all red meat, but try to get a good portion of your protein from plants, including fermented soya products and other fermented foods--regular consumption lowers the risk of bowel cancer by 30%, due to the complex relationship between gut bacteria, inflammation and immune function (bacteria from bleeding gums has now been shown to be a part of the colon cancer picture, so take care of your oral health too).  

The best non-plant protein would be oily fish with its anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats and vitamin D, which are increasingly being recognised as important in the prevention and control of colon cancer cell growth. In fact, a vitamin D deficiency is currently being investigated as an important part of the puzzle. Studies suggest that a vegetarian diet reduces risk by 22%, but the risk for those adding fish to that the risk is a mighty 43% lower. 

Obesity is thought to be responsible for a very significant 35% of bowel cancer cases (due to raised levels of insulin and other hormones), and scientists in France have just pointed out that you can have raised insulin, if you eat too much sugar/refined carbohydrate, and still look slim and healthy. Inactivity promotes those hormones, obesity and constipation. Constipation causes inflammation in the bowel, and also lengthens its exposure to carcinogens and toxins. Just half an hour of exercise a day reduces your risk by 20%, and for those already diagnosed six hours a week will double the chance of survival. Exercising outside in the summer will give you that sunshine vitamin D, and also help reduce stress levels. A new study has shown that anxiety and depression raises the risk of any type of cancer by a third, so addressing these issues would be vital for all of us.

• For more information go to or freephone the Irish Cancer Society on 1800 200700


What to eat, and what to avoid

EAT PLENTY OF:  Fibre from wholegrains, pulses, nuts (especially  brazil nuts), seeds (especially ground linseed), and vegetables, especially the cabbage/broccoli family, the orange/yellow/red family, onion and garlic family; avocadoes, apples, plums, prunes, oranges, lemons and berries; seafood, especially oily fish; plant-based protein from (again) nuts and seeds, quinoa and oats, pulses and fermented soya products; other fermented foods like live/bio yoghurt and kefir, sauerkraut and kimchi, sourdough bread; olive oil, seaweeds, ginger and turmeric. DRINK white and green tea, coffee, pure cocoa. SUPPLEMENT vitamin D, quercetin, ginger, turmeric. 


AVOID: Processed meats (sausages, rashers, hot dogs, salami, ham and luncheon meats), cured/smoked/BBQ/burnt foods of any kind, excess red meat, frying with vegetable oils (corn, sunflower), trans fats, sugar and refined (white) grains.

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