Bowel cancer report shows worrying trend for young people

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Live in NZ and under 50? You’re now more likely to be diagnosed with bowel cancer. That’s the key finding from an international report part-funded by the Cancer Society of New Zealand, and released today.

The report ‘Generational shifts in colorectal cancer incidence in seven high income countries’ was produced by the International Cancer Benchmarking Programme (ICBP). Cancer Society medical director Dr Chris Jackson was a co-author of the report.

The report shows that for people over the age of 50, the rates of bowel cancer are stable or falling slightly, but the risk is still high.

For people younger than 50, and particularly those born after 1990, the rates of colon and rectal cancer are on the rise.

While this is part of a worldwide trend, New Zealand is showing higher rates than some comparable countries.

“Bowel cancer typically occurs after the age of 50 with only 10% of cases affecting people under 50. So this rise reflects a small number of people affected but is a worrying trend.

“We do need more research to understand the causes, but we know that a low fibre diet that’s high in red and processed meat, high alcohol intake, obesity and physical inactivity are all key contributors to bowel cancer risk,” continues Dr Jackson.

“Additionally, new research is showing that the bugs that live in our gut, the microbiome, play a pivotal role in cancer risk and immunity against cancer. We need to dedicate more research to understanding the role of the microbiome better.”

The Cancer Society encourage New Zealanders of all ages to be more aware of bowel cancer symptoms and to see a doctor if they are concerned.

“It’s important that people look at the everyday things they can do to lower their risk of bowel cancer. A balanced diet, physical activity, reducing or avoiding alcohol, being smoke-free and maintaining a healthy weight all contribute to reducing the risk of bowel cancer,” says Dr Chris Jackson.

The research highlights the need to invest in cancer prevention, early detection and screening services. In particularly establishing the bowel screening programme across the country as a matter of urgency.

“Some New Zealanders feel the burden of cancer unfairly, particularly Māori and Pacifica. More targeted screening and priority programmes will ensure better survival from bowel cancer and allow all New Zealanders to share the benefits of a first world system.

“New Zealand has worse cancer outcomes than Australia and the UK – yet incredibly, cancer isn’t one of the Government’s health priorities. The Cancer Society continues to demand a nationally-led, coordinated approach to cancer.

“We need to make cancer a priority. Cancer is the number one cause of death in New Zealand and the number of people with cancer is predicted to swell by 50% in the next 15 years”.

“All New Zealanders should have access to the best care wherever they live – but currently each district health board is doing things differently. This has led to major variations in care, and a post-code lottery in cancer-care” concludes Jackson.

If people have any of these symptoms for longer than four to six weeks, talk to your doctor:

  • bleeding from your bottom or blood in your bowel motion
  • a recent change in your bowel motions, such as going to the toilet more often, diarrhoea, constipation or a feeling that your bowel does not empty completely
  • stomach pains, frequent wind pains, bloating or cramps.

These symptoms may not be caused by cancer, but it is important to get a medical opinion.

All those eligible for the national bowel cancer screening programme should take part. Information about bowel screening can be found here

Cancer Society tips that may reduce your risk of developing bowel cancer:

  • Aim to be a healthy weight throughout your life. Weight gain, especially around the waist, is linked to bowel cancer
  • Eat mostly plant foods (vegetables, fruit, grains, legumes and pulses)
  • Choose wholemeal and whole-grain breads and cereals
  • Eat smaller and fewer servings of red meat and avoid processed meats
  • Eat foods low in fat, salt and sugar
  • Be physically active every day. At least one hour per day of moderate activity such as a brisk walk, lowers your risk of bowel cancer. Vigorous activity, such as soccer or running, several times per week is likely to have an even greater benefit
  • Limit alcoholic drinks to one drink for women per day, and two drinks per day for men, or ideally don’t drink alcohol at all
  • Don’t smoke