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Bowel cancer and its rise in young people: What’s the risk?

In partnership with Bowel Cancer Australia Director and colorectal surgeon Dr Graham Newstead

It’s well and truly time to get familiar with your poop

A young woman wearing a headscarf peers out the window
A young woman wearing a headscarf peers out the window

Have you ever looked back at old movies or TV ads where the glamorous hero pulls out a cigarette mid-scene and thought, ‘Mate, that’s doing your health some serious damage’?

Back then, there was a myth that smoking wasn’t a dangerous habit – and it’s pretty astounding how much we’ve learnt about the true impact cigarettes have on our health over just a few generations.

Now it’s time for us to bust another common myth – that bowel cancer is something only older people need to worry about.

Bowel Cancer Australia reveals that over the last 30 years, the disease has increased by a huge 186% in people aged 15-24 and it’s the most common cause of cancer-related deaths for 25 to 29-year-olds.

So, dear readers, it’s well and truly time to get familiar with your poop.

We spoke with Bowel Cancer Australia Director and colorectal surgeon Dr Graham Newstead to find out what we need to know about our number twos.

What is bowel cancer?

Bowel Cancer Australia is a cancer that can affect any part of the colon or rectum and it usually stems from polyps, which are benign growths on the wall or lining of the bowel. If left untreated these polyps can become cancerous and develop into cancerous tumours.

It’s the most common cause of cancer-related deaths for 25-29 year olds.

Why is there an increase in bowel cancer?

There isn’t a definitive answer when it comes to the rise of bowel cancer in younger people. However, what we do know is that bowel cancer in younger people is showing itself to be more aggressive than when it occurs in older age groups.

“While bowel cancer is still far more common in the over-50s, studies have shown it is sometimes more aggressive in younger patients. It is now the leading cause of cancer-related death among Australians ages 25-29, which is why it is so important to be suspicious of symptoms,” says Dr Graham.

“A study in the US predicted rates of bowel cancer among young adults will double by 2030 unless something changes, and I believe local figures will soon show the same sort of increase in young Australians.”

Signs and symptoms of bowel cancer

When it comes to symptoms of bowel cancer, it’s essential that you lookout for signs of blood in your stools. But, this isn’t the only symptom to watch out for.

For beauty blogger and bowel cancer survivor Marisa, 32, bowel cancer was the last thing on her mind when she experienced what she believed to be ‘Bali belly’ following a trip to Indonesia.

“I had some aches when I got home from Bali, and I felt nauseous and lost my appetite,” she explains.

“It wasn’t until I started to get stabbing pains in my upper abdomen that I decided to see a doctor. They looked me over and said I was fine, but I knew something was wrong.

A portrait of bowel cancer survivor Marisa in front of some plants

“Two days later I was driving back to the doctor in excruciating pain and finally had an emergency CT scan where they saw a blockage in my bowel that had caused it to inflame and burst my appendix.”

The blockage was found to be stage two bowel cancer.

“Cancer never once crossed my mind,” she explains. “Because I was just 32 when I was diagnosed, my partner and I had to make quick decisions regarding freezing my eggs before chemo - a conversation I had to have with him on the phone as he was overseas!

Some of the most common symptoms of bowel cancer include:

  • Blood in stools, or rectal bleeding

  • Persistent or unusual bowel movements (such as diarrhoea or constipation)

  • Mucus in stools

  • Lumpy or painful anus

  • Unexplained fatigue

“It is important for people, no matter what their age, to know their own bodies and recognise when something is not normal,” says Dr Graham.

“Symptoms suggestive of bowel cancer should be followed up with colonoscopy within 30 days to rule out anything more sinister.”

The good news is that if detected early the five-year survival rate for bowel cancer is 99%.

How is bowel cancer treated?

Cancer treatment, including bowel cancer treatment, isn’t a one size fits all. The time of detection, the stage of the cancer and the size of the cancer are all taken into account when determining the treatment needed.

For Marisa, she was lucky to have her cancer isolated and removed before it spread. On top of that, she had adjuvant chemotherapy to destroy any remaining cancer cells and decrease the risk of recurrence.

Of course, more aggressive instances of bowel cancer can have more intensive treatments that can include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, surgery and the use of an ileostomy bag.

The good news is that if detected early the five-year survival rate for bowel cancer is 99%.

And, when it comes to life post-cancer diagnosis, support networks can be really important. Many young bowel cancer patients report feeling alone and isolated following diagnosis and during their bowel cancer journey.

A young man hunched over on the couch as he holds his abdomen

“Bowel Cancer Australia launched the You’re Never Too Young advocacy initiative to raise community awareness about bowel cancer in younger people,” explains Dr Graham. “It provides tailored support for young-onset bowel cancer patients and their loved ones.”

For Marisa, she has found strength in her recovery and strongly encourages young people to be aware of their own bodies – and take note of any changes to bowel habits.

“You’re never too young to have bowel cancer,” explains Dr Graham. “Regardless of age people should not ignore the warning signs. If you have a family history of the disease you also need to talk to your GP. If you feel your concerns are not being taken seriously by your GP, seek a second opinion.

For more information about the You’re Never Too Young initiative visit or call the Bowel Cancer Australia Hotline on 1800 555 494.

For more information on the other kinds of health checks you should be getting, we’ve put together a handy health check guide.

  • If you’re aged between 20-29, find out more with our article Health checks in your 20s.

  • If you’re aged between 30-39, we’ve put together this article: Health checks in your 30s.

  • For those of us at average or near average risk of bowel cancer, it’s recommended to do a faecal test every 2 years between ages 50-74. Make an appointment with your GP to discuss.

1People with no first or second-degree relative with bowel cancer, or one first-degree relative with bowel cancer diagnosed at 55 years or older; or one first-degree and one second-degree relative diagnosed with bowel cancer at 55 years or older.

Dr Graham Newstead

Dr Graham Newstead in his office

In partnership with Bowel Cancer Australia Director and colorectal surgeon

Dr Graham Newstead

Associate Professor Graham Newstead is Head of the Colorectal Unit at the Prince of Wales Private Hospital. He is Chairman of the International Council of Coloproctology, the Bowel Cancer Foundation within Bowel Cancer Australia and the Medical Advisory Council of the Prince of Wales Private Hospital.