Early-onset bowel cancer is real and it’s on the rise

Contrary to common belief, bowel cancer is a disease that does not discriminate. It can impact men and women, young and old. Early detection saves lives.

What started as a bet for Hollywood actor Ryan Reynolds to publicly film a colonoscopy may have saved his life.

The procedure picked up a benign polyp – a tissue growth that can be a precursor to cancer.

The 46-year-old star’s experience has helped fan the conversation around bowel cancer and the importance of screening – even if you’re young.

It’s a message 27-year-old Kellie Finlayson, wife of Port Adelaide footballer Jeremy Finlayson, is also trying to promote.

The young mum was diagnosed with stage 3 bowel cancer at 25 – shortly after the birth of the couple’s first child.

Her cancer has since progressed to stage 4.

Kellie is now on a mission to raise awareness for early detection and is an ambassador for the Trust Your Gut online symptom checker.


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A post shared by Ryan Reynolds (@vancityreynolds)

Bowel cancer does not just affect older people

The third most common type of cancer diagnosed in Australia, bowel cancer is the second deadliest.

Australians under the age of 50 account for just over 10 per cent of diagnosed cases, and for people aged 25-44 it is the most deadly cancer.

In the last 30 years, there has been a 266 per cent increase in bowel cancer cases in young Australians – but symptoms are often missed.

Bowel Cancer Australia medical director, Associate Professor Graham Newstead says because bowel cancer is not expected in younger people, symptoms can be misinterpreted.

“The community and GPs historically don’t expect young people to be getting bowel cancer,” Assoc Prof Newstead says.

“Because Australians aren’t expecting bowel cancer when they’re young, the symptoms are overlooked for bowel cancer.”


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A post shared by KELLIE FINLAYSON (@kelliefinlayson_)

Possible bowel cancer symptoms you should not ignore

Oncologist and Jodi Lee Foundation board member Professor Tim Price says, regardless of age, any symptoms that persist without explanation are always important to have checked out.

“Look for a change in bowel habits, change in size of stool (for example thin, hard to pass stools), persistent bloating, abdominal and pelvic pain, or blood in your bowel motions,” Prof Price says.

Some people may have a higher bowel cancer risk, with factors including increasing age, family history, previous experience with inflammatory bowel disease, any type of bowel cancer, or polyps contributing to susceptibility.

If detected early, bowel cancer can be successfully treated in more than 90 per cent of cases.

How to test for bowel cancer

While persistent symptoms should send you straight to the GP, screening tests are all about prevention.

Through the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program (NBCSP), Aussies aged 50-74 are sent free bowel cancer screening tests every two years.

These at-home tests are designed to pick up microscopic amounts of blood in your poo, and beat cancer before it’s begun.

“The aim is to try and prevent cancers, not find and cure them,” Assoc Prof Newstead says.

For Aussies outside the 50-74 age bracket with a hereditary risk or interest in bowel cancer screening, NBCSP tests are available to buy from chemists, GPs and Bowel Cancer Australia.

If a screening test is positive, a colonoscopy is the next step to identify and remove any polyps.

“If a dead cell [in the bowel] doesn’t pass, it will eventually divide, grow and become an abnormal bunch of cells called a polyp,” Assoc Prof Newstead explains.

Around 15-40 per cent of us have polyps.

“They occur quite commonly, particularly more now because we’re living longer, and the food we’re eating is changing the nature of the bowel,” Assoc Prof Newstead says.

Ways to minimise risk of bowel cancer

There are actions you can take to help reduce your risk of bowel cancer, including:

  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Keep physically active
  • Eat less processed and red meat
  • Drink less alcohol
  • Eat wholegrains, dietary fibre and dairy foods
  • Quit smoking
  • Get screened regularly

“We know exercise is important and has shown benefits with bowel cancer, and a healthy, balanced diet is important too,” Prof Price says.

“There is some evidence around an excess of processed meats increasing bowel cancer risk, but the general key is moderation, so not having anything in excess.”

Bowel Cancer Australia celebrates Red Apple Day on June 21, and raises funds for early-onset bowel cancer research. 

Written by Hayley Hinze.