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Healthy diet and weight to reduce bowel cancer risk

Bowel cancer is common. How can you prevent bowel cancer? Adjusting your diet and keeping a healthy weight can help you avoid this deadly disease.

While breast, cervical and prostate cancers are, sadly, all too common, bowel cancer is an often ignored, potential death sentence. It is one of our most common cancers. In New Zealand more than 2000 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer every year, with around 1200 losing their life to the disease. In Australia more than 13,000 new cases of bowel cancer are diagnosed every year, with more than 4100 people dying from the disease each year.

Between the stomach and the rectum is a 6m-long tube of muscle, commonly called the gut. It is made up of two parts: the small and large intestine. Cancer of the small intestine is quite rare, and the terms bowel cancer or colon cancer are usually used to describe cancers found in the large intestine.

Bowel cancer often begins to develop in tiny mushroom-like growths called polyps that form in the large intestine. Polyps are quite common, but about 5 per cent become cancerous, which happens slowly over five to 10 years. If they are discovered during a routine colonoscopy, they are removed to reduce the risk of colon cancer.

While anyone can be affected by bowel cancer, some people are at increased risk of developing the disease. Having a first-generation relative (parent, brother, sister or child) who has had bowel cancer increases your risk, especially if they were diagnosed before the age of 50. Inflammatory bowel conditions such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis that have been present for 10 or more years can also make you more susceptible to bowel cancer, and as you age your risk of developing it increases. Most cases are diagnosed in people over 60, with a slightly higher incidence in men than women.

So how do you know if you have bowel cancer? The only accurate way to assess the health of your bowel is by undergoing a colonoscopy. Cancers, polyps and pre-cancerous changes can then be seen, and small pieces of suspect tissue can be removed for analysis. If the cancer is discovered in its early stages, before it has spread out of the bowel, it can often be treated successfully. There are some signs and symptoms that should always be investigated by your doctor: passing blood with a bowel motion, or a change in bowel habits, such as constipation or frequent loose stools, lasting more than two weeks.

Here are some practical steps you can take to reduce your risk of colon cancer.


A high-fibre diet reduces your risk of bowel cancer. Fibre in the bowel is broken down by friendly bacteria into butyric acid, a type of fatty acid that helps to keep the walls of the gut healthy and slows down the proliferation of cancer cells.

Boost your dietary fibre by eating lots of fruit and vegetables, wholegrain bread and cereal, and lentils, beans and legumes. Aim for at least 18g of fibre daily, and drink plenty of water to keep your bowels moving regularly. Some research suggests that onions, garlic, watercress and broccoli may have additional benefits.

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