Bowel cancer: Infrequent bowel movements is a risk factor – how irregular is a concern?
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Bowel cancer is one of the most common types of cancer diagnosed in the UK. It is a general term for cancerous cells that multiply exponentially within the large bowel – a part of the digestive system. Due to the location of the cancer, many of the symptoms involve an interference in the way the body removes waste.
Infrequent bowel movements has been documented as a significant warning sign of bowel cancer.
A meta-analysis of 14 case-control studies that examined the association between constipation or infrequent bowel movements and bowel cancer found a statistically significant (48 percent) increase in the risk of developing bowel cancer when associated with constipation.
A study published in the British Journal of Cancer sought to build on this association and pin down the frequency of bowel movements and risk association.
Researchers conducted a large cohort study to investigate the association between bowel habits and the bowel cancer risk in Japanese men and women.
All data were taken from the Japan Collaborative Cohort (JACC) Study, a large community-based prospective study.
Most subjects were recruited from the general population or when undergoing routine health checks in the municipalities.
All participants completed a self-administered questionnaire on enrolment.
This covered demographic characteristics and lifestyle factors such as diet, tobacco smoking, alcohol consumption, physical activity, bowel movement frequency, susceptibility to diarrhoea and laxative use over the past year.
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The alternative answers provided on the questionnaire for the frequency of BM were: ‘daily’, ‘every two to three days’, ‘every four to five days’ and ‘every six days or less’.
After conducting their analysis, the researchers found a “significant” association between bowel movement frequency and bowel cancer risk.
Infrequent bowel movements were associated with a significantly increased risk of bowel cancer and a marginally increased risk of colon cancer in women, they found.
During the study, a significantly increased risk of bowel cancer was found only in subjects who reported bowel movements every six days or less relative to those reporting daily bowel movements.
“Therefore, we suggest that only highly infrequent bowel movements elevate the risk of colorectal cancer,” the researchers concluded.
Other symptoms of bowel cancer
According to the NHS, more than 90 percent of people with bowel cancer have one of the following combinations of symptoms:
- A persistent change in bowel habit – pooing more often, with looser, runnier poos and sometimes tummy (abdominal) pain
- Blood in the poo without other symptoms of piles (haemorrhoids) – this makes it unlikely the cause is haemorrhoids
- Abdominal pain, discomfort or bloating always brought on by eating – sometimes resulting in a reduction in the amount of food eaten and weight loss.
As the health body explains, most people with these symptoms do not have bowel cancer.
Nonetheless, see a GP if you have any of the symptoms of bowel cancer for three weeks or more, it advises.
Am I at risk?
The exact cause of bowel cancer is unknown. However, research has shown several factors may make you more likely to develop it.
Having one or more risk factors doesn’t mean that you will definitely get bowel cancer.
Many studies have shown that eating lots of red and processed meat increases the risk of bowel cancer.
Other risk factors include:
- Being overweight and obese
- Physical activity
- Smoking tobacco
- Family history
- Ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease
- Previous cancer
- Medical conditions
- Benign polyps in the bowel
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