Can We Prevent Bowel Cancer?


This week you'll have been aware that Deborah James, bowel cancer sufferer and campaigner, died at the age of only 40, having been diagnosed in 2016 with the disease.


It's a sad story- she went to her GP three times, increasingly distressed at her worsening symptoms, only to be told via blood tests that they could find nothing. When, eventually, a privately scheduled colonoscopy confirmed her concerns, it was already too late.


After the initial shock, she galvanised herself into action and became the cover girl for bowel cancer. She hosted the You Me & The Big C podcast, campaigned to raise awareness for the disease and ultimately raised over £7m on her Bowel Babe Just Giving page asking everyone to buy her a drink when she posted about her entering the palliative phase of her treatment.


Bowel cancer is the 4th most common cancer in the UK. 42,900 new cases are reported every year, which adds up to 120 cases every day. (figure from 2016-2018). 1 in 15 males and 1 in 18 females in the UK will have a bowel cancer diagnosis at some point in their lives.


While many incidences of cancer are probably unpreventable, in the case of bowel cancer, it's thought that 54% of cases are preventable.


Unsurprisingly, the usual suspects of obesity, alcohol and smoking all contribute to higher risk factors for the disease (11%, 6% and 7% respectively) but 13% is thought to be due to eating processed meats and a whopping 28% down to not eating enough fibre. (Source Cancer Research UK).


Now ham, sausages and bacon are british staples and we're getting more and more into chorizo, salami and other tasty cured sausages- but a word of warning: these usually all contain nitrates/ites for preservative purposes. N-nitroso compounds, derived from these preservatives have been found to damage the cells that line the bowel. Even small amounts eaten daily (yes that ham and cheese sarnie) will increase your risk of bowel cancer by up to 18%.(For balance, Here's a BBC Good Food article on the matter with a slightly different perspective on the figures).


If you think a sandwich isn't a sandwich without meat- go for fresh meat like cooked turkey or chicken, or try these veg-centric sarnies or swap red meat burgers for my all-time favourite portobello mushroom burger with chargrilled pepper and goat's cheese. Keep the deli meat for special occasions.


As you regulars know, I'm always banging on about fibre; wholegrains: wholemeal bread, pasta, brown rice, alternative grains like quinoa, bulgur and buckwheat; pulses and legumes, beans, lentils, things with a skin on them. Popcorn instead of crisps. Try to have three portions a day. You know what to do.


As Michael Pollan says sagely: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.


I'm still struggling with that middle one.


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