We have all heard the news of the tragic passing of Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman from colon cancer, which is a shock for all of us. Chadwick was one of the best actors of our time and throughout his battle with cancer, gave us critically acclaimed movies such as Black Panther, 42, 21 bridges, The 5 Bloods, as well as represented the black culture in movies such as Captain America: Civil War, and The Avengers; Infinity War. He is truly an inspiration. The strength and determination to work hard and succeed in all that he did despite his illness is a testament in itself. He is part of history. As part of an all black cast in Black Panther, he was at the forefront of celebrating African beauty and culture, and motivating black people around the world to celebrate who they are.
We will forever be grateful and thankful that he was able to grace us with his talent, and be a part of a movement to promote black culture. It is with great sadness that I am writing this article about a truly influential man.
In light of this, it is extremely important for us to understand the dangers of bowel cancer, and raise awareness about how to prevent it. Within the UK, Bowel cancer is the fourth most common cancer, and the second biggest cancer killer. This means that understanding what it is and how to prevent it should be an essential component of health education.
What is Bowel Cancer?
Bowel cancer is the rapid abnormal growth of cells within the tissues of the large intestine, also known as the bowel or colon (1). The bowel is part of the body’s digestive system, and is made up of two parts. The small bowel is where food is broken down and absorbed, and the large bowel (made up of the colon and rectum) is where waste from the food passes through and is excreted. Bowel cancer usually affects the large bowel.
Usually within the body, your cells usually divide and grow in a controlled way, however some can grow uncontrollably and change shape which is known as cancer. These cancer cells may stay in the bowel or they might spread to other parts of the body, for instance the liver or the lungs.
How Common Is It?
Bowel cancer is more common in people over the age of 50, with 94% of cases being diagnosed in people over this age, and over 59% of cases diagnosed in people aged 70 or over. Even though this may be the case, bowel cancer can affect anyone of any age. In fact, more than 2,500 new cases are diagnosed each year in people under the age of 50 (2).
Both sexes can get bowel cancer, however it is more common in men, with 1 in 15 men, and 1 in 18 women being diagnosed with bowel cancer during their lifetime.
What is interesting about bowel cancer is that some people do not get any symptoms at all, but start getting symptoms in the later stages of the disease. Studies have found that over 50% of people with bowel cancer do not get any symptoms at all (3). These statistics are the main reason why it is essential to visit a doctor or attend regular doctors appointments/check ins to ensure that your bowels are in working order.
If symptoms do develop, they usually include:
- Constipation that gets worse over time
- Blood in the stool
- A decrease in thickness of stool
- A pain or lump in the stomach
- Extreme tiredness for no reason
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss (4)
What Are The Risk Factors?
- An unhealthy diet: It has been found that a high intake of fat, sugar, red meat, processed meats can cause bowel cancer (5)
- Lack of physical exercise (6)
- Being obese
- Having IBS (7) , or Crohn’s disease (8)
- Having a family history of bowel cancer: If you have first degree relatives with bowel cancer, you have a 2 to 3 fold greater risk of the disease (9)
- Having a history of non-cancerous growths (polyps) in your bowel
- Alcohol or smoking (10)
Please note – Anything that increases your chance of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn’t mean that you will not get cancer.
Bowel Cancer Diagnosis And Screening
Bowel cancer is treatable and curable especially if diagnosed early. Nearly everyone survives bowel cancer if diagnosed at the earliest stage. However as the disease develops, this drops significantly.
Bowel cancer may be diagnosed by obtaining a sample of the colon during a sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy. During this, the doctor looks into the colon/bowel to check for polyps. These are small non cancerous growths that grow within the bowel. Most bowel cancers develop from polyps, but not all polyps develop into cancer. These polyps are usually removed by a doctor, and checked if it is cancerous.
Treatment usually consists of surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, or palliative care, depending on the stage of the cancer.
In order to detect bowel cancer sooner, the NHS offers 2 types of bowel cancer screening in England:
- A FIT or FOB test: This is available for all men and women aged 60 to 74, and is offered every two years. If you are over 75, you can ask for this test.
- A bowel scope screening test is offered to men and women at the age of 55.
There are currently no tests given to those under the age of 50. With this in mind, it is imperative to take responsibility if you are under 55 to monitor and raise any concerns with your doctor as they arise. No question is a silly one when your life is at stake.
Ways To Prevent Bowel Cancer
It has been estimated that about half of colorectal cancer cases are due to lifestyle factors, and about a quarter of all cases are preventable (11).
- Eat lots of fibre: There is evidence to suggest that dietary fibre and whole grains are a key component of reducing the risk of bowel cancer due to the high fibre content (12). This has been supported by the World Health Organization who noted in their 2014 cancer report that an increased intake of fibrous foods may help prevent bowel cancer. Similarly, The World Cancer Research Fund also listed the benefit of fibre for prevention of colorectal cancer as “probable” as of 2017 (13)
- Exercise: Reports have shown that high levels of physical activity reduce the risk of colon cancer by about 21% (14). Additionally, sitting regularly for prolonged periods is associated with higher mortality from colon cancer.
In the same vein, these other factors in particular can also decrease the risk of bowel cancer:
- Avoiding lots of fatty foods
- Limiting or avoiding red meat
- Losing weight
- Limiting/avoiding alcohol
- Drinking 5 glasses of water a day: There has been a strong correlation between this and a decrease in the risk of colorectal cancer (15)
Increased monitoring, maintaining body weight through a combination of physical exercise and eating a healthy diet that is high in fibre, as well as reducing smoking and alcohol consumption can significantly reduce the risk of colon cancer (16).
Knowing The Facts Saves Lives
Knowing these facts makes it extremely important to monitor yourself and your health in the best way possible. Bowel cancer can happen to anyone at any age, and gaining a thorough understanding of it enables you to effectively take the steps to monitor and prevent it. Bowel cancer is the 4th most prevalent cancer in the UK and although there are effective screening techniques, it is only available for a particular percentile of the population. Keep this fact in mind.
The courage and the strength that Chadwick has shown us during his battle with cancer shows that no matter what, follow your dreams and push yourself to the limit no matter how hard it seems. There is nothing more powerful than the human spirit. Even though he is gone, he will never be forgotten. Thank you for being our hero.
RIP Chadwick Boseman 1976 – 2020