It is the third most common cancer in the UK, afflicting one in 20 women and one in 16 men.
Yet because of the embarrassment factor, few people are aware of bowel cancer’s risks and symptoms – meaning too many are dying every year.
The NHS estimates that 16,000 people lose their lives to the disease in England annually, despite the fact that, if caught early enough, it can be cured.
Charity Beating Bowel Cancer says: “The good news is that bowel cancer can be successfully treated in over 90 per cent of cases if it is diagnosed at an early stage.”
Indeed, a few small lifestyle changes can help to prevent the cancer striking at all.
That’s why cancer charities are joining forces to launch Be Loud Be Clear week (January 23-30), urging people to dress up in outlandish clothes to help raise awareness.
But there is also one very important thing you can do from the privacy of your own home: Read up on the whys and wherefores of the disease.
So, what exactly is bowel cancer and how can it affect you?
The disease can blight any part of the colon, rectum or anus – the three main parts of the large bowel. It usually starts as slow-growing polyps or ulcers on the inside of the bowel wall, which can change over time and, if left untreated, can grow bigger and turn cancerous.
There are 38,600 new cases recorded every year in the UK, mostly in adults over the age of 50 – but the number of younger men and women being diagnosed is on the rise.
Early symptoms are very similar to other, benign bowel problems, so it is vital to be aware of what is normal for you so that you can get any unusual changes investigated straight away.
*Bleeding from the bottom, or blood in the faeces, possibly accompanied by soreness, lumps and itchiness.
*Persistent change in bowel habits lasting four weeks or more – e.g. constipation, feeling the bowel is not completely empty, frequent or loose stools and/or passing clear, ‘jelly’-like mucus.
*Pain or a lump in your tummy, especially on the right hand side.
*Unexplained dizziness, tiredness and breathlessness.
*Unexpected and unexplained weight loss.
As for what causes bowel cancer, there are strong links with diet, inactivity, heavy drinking and smoking. Research shows overweight or obese men, for instance, are 50 per cent more likely to develop the disease as those who maintain a healthy weight.
Eating too much saturated fat, red meat and processed meat and not enough fibre increases risk, as does lack of exercise.
People with diabetes, Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis may also be more likely to develop the disease.
To reduce the risk of bowel cancer, experts advise:
*Eat no more than 500g of red meat (beef, lamb, pork) per week.
*Eat plenty of whole-grains – replace white bread, rice and pasta with brown or granary varieties.
*Eat five portions of fruit and veg a day – perhaps by adding a handful of chopped fruit to your cereal in the morning, a piece of fruit to your morning snack, a glass of fresh fruit juice in the afternoon and two broccoli florets and half a courgette to your dinner.
*Avoid processed meats such as ham, salami, bacon and sausages as much as possible: Eat them only as an occasional treat.
*Cut down on alcohol. For low risk drinking, the NHS advises that men should drink no more than three or four units and women no more two to three units a day, with two alcohol-free days a week.
England, Scotland and Wales are all part of a the UK Bowel Screening Programme. Everyone between the ages of 60 and 69 in England, 50 and 74 in Scotland, and 60 and 74 in Wales are eligible for screening kits which are sent in the post to your home.
Known as the FOB (faecal occult blood) test, the kit detects blood hidden in your faeces (stools). The test requires a small smear of your faeces to be applied to a card which is then sent back to a laboratory to look for the presence of tiny amounts of blood.
If blood is detected, it does not mean you have bowel cancer, but it does mean that further tests are needed.
The test is not compulsory, but doctors say it is a major tool in the battle against the disease.
Mark Flannagan, Chief Executive of Beating Bowel Cancer: “Bowel cancer can be beaten but it continues to claim a life every 30 minutes in the UK.
“This Be Loud Be Clear we are calling for people to be LOUD about bowel caner and be CLEAR on the symptoms of the UK’s second biggest cancer killer.
“If diagnosed early over 90 per cent of patients could be successfully treated. So please, if you are worried about symptoms make an appointment to see your GP.”