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Cancer is one of the most life-threatening diseases that we have today.

A common type of cancer is bowel cancer, also known as colorectal, rectal, or colon cancer.

In 2014, approximately 41,265 people in the United Kingdom were diagnosed with this cancer type.

With these statistics, it’s evident that we need to do something about it.

Most cancer types have their risk factors, and for bowel cancer, it’s closely linked to alcohol consumption.

Therefore, minimising alcohol consumption is one of the ways to prevent the risk of getting this deadly disease.

Bowel Cancer – What Exactly is It?

Before we go into describing bowel cancer, let’s first look at what is the bowel.

The bowel is made up of 3 parts: the small bowel or the small intestine where most of the absorption of nutrients takes place, the large bowel which is the colon, and the rectum.

Bowel cancer affects the large bowel and rectum; these are the lower parts of a person’s digestive system.

The exact cause of this cancer type is unknown, but as we mentioned earlier, factors such as drinking make a person more susceptible.

Bowel cancer is more common in older individuals, with statistics indicating that out of 10 people with this disease, 9 are over 60 years. However, it’s worth noting that even younger people can get it.

And when it comes to the types of cancer-causing most deaths in the United Kindom, bowel cancer is second to lung cancer.

Bowel Cancer Signs and Symptoms

You should always stay on the lookout for any early signs and symptoms of bowel cancer.

This way, you can go for a proper diagnosis while it’s still early, get treated, and recover fully.

Let’s look at some of these symptoms to help you understand better.

  • Blood in the stool – This is one indicator showing something isn’t right inside. It indicates something is wrong from the stomach, the intestinal tract, till the rectum. You should visit a doctor to find the exact cause of the problem.
  • Diarrhoea – Consuming unhygienic foods, overindulgence, and other behaviours normally cause diarrhoea. However, the body has its own mechanisms to eliminate the problem with normal medicine. If the problem doesn’t go away even after several weeks, you need to visit a doctor for a proper diagnosis.
  • Continuous changes in bowel habits – Increased frequencies in bowel movements plus looser stool for long durations may indicate bowel cancer. Don’t forget to check if there are blood and pus in the stool.
  • Constipation – As cancer continues developing, the cancerous cells tend to block the bowel. This brings pain around the abdominal area, which may be coupled with vomiting and a bloating feeling.
  • Pain and discomfort – If you feel pain or discomfort around the abdominal area, especially after taking food, visit a medical practitioner for a checkup.
  • Anaemia – As the cancerous cells continue growing, they cause internal bleeding. You lose a lot of blood, and this makes you feel weak, fatigued, and breathless.

These are not the only symptoms of bowel cancer, but they’re the most common.

It’s worth noting that just because you’re experiencing these symptoms doesn’t mean you have this cancer type; they may be coming from a non-fatal illness such as food poisoning or haemorrhoids. Therefore, if you notice any of these symptoms, don’t panic.

Visit a qualified medical professional who will assess you and make a proper diagnosis. And as we mentioned earlier, catching bowel cancer early can mean full recovery.

The Screening of Bowel Cancer

Even if you’re not experiencing any signs or symptoms, medical experts recommend that you should go for cancer screening.

What is screening? It’s the process of discovering whether you have bowel cancer.

If you have it, you start treatment immediately to increase your chances of beating the diseases and making a full recovery.

And since the late symptoms of this cancer type are devastating, early screening and treatment ensure you won’t have to go through them. How is bowel cancer screened?

  • The Faecal Occult Blood (FOB) test – This is a test provided to all women and men aged 60 to 74. After every 2 years, these men and women receive a free home test kit via the post. They then return it to the NHS where the sample goes through thorough testing and analysis to determine whether a person has bowel cancer.
  • Bowel scope screening – This is another test offered to men and women aged 55 and above. In this test, a medical professional inserts a flexible tube with a camera and light to detect if you have small growths known as polyps, which may eventually develop into cancer.

If you need more information about bowel cancer screening, the helpline is 0800 140 469.

Through this helpline, you can also ask if there is screening near you and how to order a kit for testing at home.

How is Alcohol Linked to Bowel Cancer?

Alcohol consumption can be linked to seven types of cancer: Liver cancer, mouth cancer, breast cancer, laryngeal cancer, pharyngeal cancer, oesophageal cancer, and bowel cancer.

In this part of our article, we’re going to look at the relationship between drinking and the risk of getting bowel cancer.

Well, several studies have been conducted to show whether these two are related in any way.

A specific study from 2011 indicated that even for people who take one drink (around 10g of alcohol) a day, they’re at risk of getting bowel cancer.

This includes people who drink alcohol lightly. Second, the study found that the level of risk depends on the amount of alcohol intake – the more the drinking, the higher the risk.

The study also pointed out that men are at a higher risk compared to women when it comes to moderate drinking. The higher risk in men compared to women may be because various genders break down alcohol in different ways.

Another one was the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition study conducted in 2007.

It showed a clear relationship between drinking over 30g of alcohol a day (1.5 glasses of 13% wine) and cancer of the bowel.

A 2015 study also offers more information about the relationship between bowel cancer and alcohol.

It focused on beer consumption and found that taking 2 or more beers per day puts an individual at a higher risk of developing bowel cancer compared to people who don’t drink, or those who drink occasionally.

How Alcohol Affects the Risk of Getting Cancer

Now that we have stated that alcohol is linked to bowel cancer, you may want to know how exactly alcohol affects the risk of developing this cancer type.

What you need to know is that there are several ways this can happen.

Research analysts have hypothesised several ways, and we’ll discuss them to help you understand better.

  • When you drink alcohol, it has to be broken down or metabolised in the body. The ethanol in your preferred alcoholic drink is broken down into acetaldehyde, a very toxic chemical and a potential human carcinogen. This toxic chemical can damage your body’s DNA (the genetic material that makes up a person’s genes) and proteins.
  • Another way alcohol increases the risk of bowel cancer is that it generates reactive oxygen species. These are molecules that are chemically reactive, and they contain oxygen. These molecules have adverse effects on the body because they cause damage to DNA, lipids, and proteins through a process known as oxidation.
  • Alcohol also impairs the body’s ability to digest and absorb various nutrients such as Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin D, Vitamin E, nutrients in Vitamin B complex like folate, and carotenoids
  • It increases the level of estrogen in the bloodstream. Estrogen is a sex hormone that is linked to breast cancer development.

Alcoholic drinks may also have various carcinogenic elements that are added during production and fermentation.

Examples of these elements are hydrocarbons, asbestos fibres, phenols, and nitrosamines. While they may be claims that taking alcohol reduces the risk of some cancers, these claims are not understood.

Genes and the Risk of Alcohol-Related Cancers – Is There Any Link?

Genes influence an individual’s risk of getting alcohol-related cancers. The specific genes involved are the ones that encode enzymes associated with the breakdown of alcohol.

For instance, one enzyme involved in the metabolisation of alcohol is dehydrogenase or ADH. It converts ethanol into acetaldehyde, a carcinogenic metabolite. This process mainly takes place in the liver.

Recent evidence shows that acetaldehyde is also produced in oral activity, and its production may be influenced by things such as oral microbiomes.

Many people of East Asian descent have a version of the gene for dehydrogenase that codes for a superactive enzyme form.

Since it’s super active, this ADH enzyme speeds up the conversion of ethanol to acetaldehyde. For the Japanese, people with this super active ADH form have a higher risk of developing pancreatic cancer compared to those who have a more common ADH form.

Another enzyme known as aldehyde dehydrogenase 2 (ALDH2) is involved in the metabolism of toxic acetaldehyde to non-toxic substances.

There are individuals, especially those of East Asian descent, who carry an ALDH2 gene variant that encodes a defective form of the enzyme.

For people who produce this defective enzyme, acetaldehyde increases after taking alcoholic drinks.

When acetaldehyde accumulates, it has unpleasant effects like heart palpitations and facial flushing.

With these effects, most people who inherit the ALDH2 variant can’t take huge amounts of alcohol, and thus, they’re at a reduced risk of getting alcohol-related cancers.

But, people with the defective ALDH2 form may become tolerant to acetaldehyde’s unpleasant effects and take alcohol in huge amounts.

Epidemiologic studies and research indicate that such people are at an increased risk of contracting alcohol-related oesophagal cancer and cancers of the head and neck, compared to people who have a full-active enzyme but drink moderate alcohol amounts.

These risks are observed among individuals who have the ALDH2 variant, and they take alcohol – they’re not seen in individuals who have the variant but don’t consume alcohol.

Minimising the Risk of Bowel Cancer

Since bowel cancer is a life-threatening disease, we should do our best to reduce the risk of getting it.

One excellent place we can start is by following the low-risk drinking guidelines stipulated by the UK Chief Medical Officers. These guidelines recommend that to keep health risks (including cancer) low, your alcohol consumption shouldn’t go beyond 14 units weekly.

If you’re one of those people who take 14 units every week, then it would be wise to spread the intake over 3 or more days.

The more you drink regularly, the more you’re at risk of contracting a variety of health issues, including breast, throat, and mouth cancer types. If you want to reduce your intake, a good technique is to have a few drink-free days every week.

When you think of how even one drink puts you at risk of getting bowel cancer, you may decide to quit immediately.

Luckily, changing your drinking ways can help minimise that risk.

If you’re one of those people who are often tempted to take a drink at the end of a tiring day, there are tips you can follow to help you cut down alcohol intake at home.

For instance, you should keep track of the units you’re consuming, know what you are buying, drink at only specific times (for example at dinner), and using wine for other purposes such as cooking and not drinking only.

Since alcohol consumption is just one of the risk factors of bowel cancer, minimising it isn’t enough to eliminate the risk of developing this illness.

A bowel cancer expert by the name Professor Robert Steele advises that the fibre content in your diet should be high, but your red meat consumption should be low.

When you couple healthy eating with regular exercise, you’ll maintain the right weight, and this is vital to protecting your body against the risk of bowel cancer development.

And if you are a smoker, try giving up this harmful habit. It’s not only associated with bowel cancer, but also other health issues such as mouth cancer, lung cancer, and many other fatal illnesses.

Lastly, schedule time to go for bowel cancer screening.

We have mentioned repeatedly that the earlier your cancer is detected, the higher your chances of making a full recovery. For the screening, you have two options.

One, you can get the faecal occult blood (FOB) test sent via post. Second, you can choose the bowel scope screening.

A medical professional will insert a tube with a camera and lighting into your bowel to check if there are any anomalies.

Approximately 1 in 20 cases occur in individuals whose other family members have bowel cancer.

Therefore, if your family has a history of this disease, get screened on a regular basis, especially if you’re over the age of 60 years.

Small Changes to Drinking Less are Very Important

Are you wondering how you can cut down on alcohol? We’re going at several steps to implement to drink less and enhance your overall health.

The next time you take an alcoholic drink, keep these tips in mind.

Remember that we all drink alcohol differently, and therefore, you should choose tips that work best for you.

  • Topping up your wine glass should be a no-no. Take your time to finish one glass before you refill. Why is topping up a bad idea? It makes it hard to track how much alcohol you have drunk.
  • Refrain from engaging in round-drinking with your friends. If you drink in rounds, you may end up consuming more than intended to keep up with the fastest person’s pace.
  • When going out, have a limit. Some people have a habit of going out for drinks either on Saturdays or Fridays after work. If you’re one of these people, have a limit on the number of drinks you’ll take. Knowing this well in advance helps you track your alcohol intake and prevents you from going overboard.
  • Drink water and alcoholic drinks alternatively. Many people take drinks all the time without drinking some water, which can cause dehydration. To ensure this doesn’t happen, drink one drink, and alternate with a glass of water.
  • While at home, control your habits. Drinking at home may seem like a good way to relax, but many people end up overdrinking. If you’re one of these people, break this habit. Use the time to drink to take a walk and enjoy nature. You can also consider not keeping alcoholic drinks in your home.
  • Swap your usual drink with other drinks which have a lower alcohol percentage.
  • Never free-pour wine or spirits. Consider using a standard drink measure every time.

Bowel cancer is one of the worst cancer types.

It’s responsible for a lot of deaths across the United Kingdom. If you love drinking alcohol, then know you’re at risk of getting this disease.

Therefore, you should make a step towards minimising your intake or stopping altogether.

Also, don’t forget to go for regular screening so that just in case you have bowel cancer, you can start your treatment early and increase your chances of survival.


Jamie is a writer for several addiction and recovery publications. Jamie is in recovery himself.  He particularly enjoys writing about his experiences with meditation, religion and holistic therapies.