According to the Irish Cancer Society, which launches its Bowel Cancer Awareness Month each April, almost 2,500 Irish people receive a diagnosis each year.
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; bowel cancer is avoidable in an astonishing 40-90% of cases; and people are understandably reluctant to discuss these issues with their GP, but a) it’s better than the potential alternative and b) the screening process is carried out in the privacy of your own bathroom and posted off.
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 all cancers, but this one in particular, the emerging message is to cut back on animal products – especially ones that have been meddled with such as processed meats and trans fats – and eat a more plant-based diet full of fibre, protein, and cell-protective antioxidants from wholegrains, vegetables, beans and lentils, nuts and seeds.
Flaxseeds/linseeds have been shown to be particularly protective here. 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.
Alongside fibre, green and brightly coloured vegetables, garlic and onions, turmeric and ginger, green tea and cocoa carry particular chemicals that (crucially) are anti-inflammatory and are known to prevent the establishment and growth of tumour cells and can even kill them off. We know that eating even small amounts of processed meats like sausages raises our risk by 20%, and late last year the World Health Authority warned that too much red meat is now also considered a risk factor.
We are privileged in that most of our cattle are grass-fed, meaning that their meat has higher levels of health-promoting fatty acids such as omega-3s, so it’s probably not necessary to cut out all red meat, but try to get at least some of your protein from 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 – and of course fish.
Oily fish in particular is rich in 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. Studies suggest that a vegetarian diet reduces risk by 22%, but the risk for those adding fish to that is a mighty 43% lower.
These was some recent research suggesting that the Paleo (‘caveman’) diet cuts the risk of bowel cancer by up to 50%, but I would be wary of this in that it’s primarily a weight loss regime which runs the risk of being low in that all-important fibre.
My feeling is that the benefits probably come from the fact that the regime (commendably) bans all processed foods, the sugars, trans fats and refined grains that we know to be the real culprits. What the headlines tucked away as a footnote was the fact that followers of a Mediterranean style diet had almost the same reduced risk, and in fact the way of eating I described above is just that—a vegetable, fish, bean and wholegrain based one with some added Asian influences such as soya, spices and green tea.
A final word about weight and exercise: obesity is thought to be responsible for a very significant 35% of bowel cancer cases (raised levels of insulin and other hormones), while inactivity promotes those hormones, obesity and constipation. Constipation causes inflammation in the bowel, and also lengthens its exposure to carcinogens and toxins.
One study showed that 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. Keeping active and eating a Mediterranean style diet will see you achieving your ideal weight pretty much effortlessly, not to mention add an average of three years to all of our lives.
• For more information go to www.cancer.ie or freephone the Irish Cancer Society on 1800 200700
Limit your chances of developing bowel cancer by ...
Avoiding processed meats (sausages, rashers, hot dogs, salami, ham and luncheon meats), cured/smoked/BBQ/burnt foods of any kind, excess red meat, dairy and animal products, frying with vegetable oils (corn, sunflower), trans fats, sugar and refined (white) grains, smoking, inactivity, being overweight, and high animal-protein/carb-free diets (such as Atkins).
Eating plenty of fibre, from wholegrains, pulses, nuts and seeds, vegetables and low sugar fruits, especially the cabbage/broccoli family, the orange/yellow/red family,onion and garlic family, berries, citrus and apples; fish, especially oily fish; plant-based protein from (again) nuts and seeds (plain and unroasted, especially ground linseeds),lentils, beans and fermented soya products; other fermented foods like live yoghurt and buttermilk, sauerkraut and kimchi; olive oil, seaweeds, cocoa, ginger and turmeric.