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Patient Information

Colorectal Cancer

Colorectal Cancer is one of the most common diseases in Australia. It is the most reported cancer in Australia and responsible for around 13% of all cancer deaths. Every year in Australia around 12500 people develop colorectal cancer with nearly 5000 patients dying of the condition. 1 in every 21 people will develop colorectal cancer during their lifetime, with the risk increasing substantially after the age of 40. It is a condition that has a good prognosis, with a good chance of cure, if detected in the early stages. If detected later, or once the cancer has spread, the outlook may not be so good and cure may not be possible. Colorectal Cancer is treated principally with surgery.


The cause is not 100% certain, however it is generally agreed that colorectal cancer develops from polyps in the bowel. Environmental and inherited factors are both implicated in the cause. Diets high in fat, smoking, lack of physical exercise, obesity, excessive alcohol intake and charring of red meat have all been shown to increase the risk of colorectal cancer. In contrast diets high in fibre, vegetables and fruit have been shown to decrease the risk of cancer developing. The effects of vitamins and minerals may be important but has not been proven yet.


Polyps are benign growths occurring on the inner lining of the bowel wall. They can potentially grow in size and turn into bowel cancer. It is thought that their rate of transformation to cancer is slow, over many years. Because they can turn into cancer bowel polyps should be removed and this is a very important aspect of cancer prevention in the community. Removal is usually performed during a colonoscopy, however occasionally surgery may be required.


Bowel Cancer Symptoms
It is important to realise bowel cancer can occur without symptoms and for this reason regular screening is necessary. The most common symptoms seen in bowel cancer are rectal bleeding, or a change in bowel habit (diarrhoea or constipation). Anaemia (a low blood count) is another relatively common presentation. Pain and weight loss are usually late symptoms as is a bowel obstruction or blockage.


Currently the second phase of the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program is being undertaken. Testing is by way of a simple test looking for blood in the stool. There is still no complete population based screening program. It is generally recommended that testing should begin in the late 30’s to early 40’s or potentially earlier in the case of a family history. Testing can be by way of a stool blood test, however a more thorough method is through colonoscopy which can both evaluate the entire colon and potentially remove polyps which may turn into cancer.


National Bowel Cancer Screening Program
Click here to view the National bowel cancer screening program.


Colorectal cancer is generally treated with surgery. Surgery may be performed laparoscopically (keyhole surgery) in appropriate instances. In addition to surgery chemotherapy or radiotherapy may also be used. In less than 5% of cases patients may require a stoma, or bag, where the bowel is brought out onto the skin surface. This may be permanent or temporary depending on the location of the cancer and the type of operation performed.

Please click here for more information on bowel cancer

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