Beating bowel cancer together

Four main take-aways from our Colorectal Cancer Study Day

Friday 21 July 2017

Last week saw another successful Colorectal Cancer Study Day, where healthcare professionals flocked to London to hear from a group of highly respected colorectal cancer specialists. With talks starting at 9:30 am, the day was packed full of insights about all aspects of bowel cancer, ranging from screening and diagnostic capacity, to the long term effects of treatment. To give you a snapshot of what was discussed, here are some of the main learnings from the talks:

Diagnosis is about the ‘when’ and ‘how’

In one of the first talks of the day, Professor Willie Hamilton, Professor of Primary Care Diagnostics at the University of Exeter Medical School, stressed the importance of how and when a person is diagnosed in relation to survival rates. As we already know, the earlier a person is diagnosed, the more likely they will have a good outcome, but the ‘how’ can also drastically impact an individual’s experience. People diagnosed because of an emergency often have a worse prognosis, not just because their cancer tends to be at a later stage, but also the sudden nature of the condition. Sadly, one in five bowel cancer patients are currently being diagnosed as an emergency. 

Over the years the way bowel cancer has been diagnosed has evolved dramatically, not because the disease itself has changed, but because the way in which GPs and doctors act on symptoms has. For example, GPs are currently more likely to act on the presence of anaemia before any other symptoms have developed, compared to say 16 years ago when rectal bleeding and abdominal pain where thought of as the symptoms that patients ‘first’ present with.

Professor Hamilton reminded everyone that while guidelines for risk threshold may work for the majority, they don’t work for everyone. He highlighted the importance of a GPs intuition and gut reaction in being able to tell if there is something worth investigating further. Even if a patient doesn’t fit the criteria for referral, it often pays to refer anyway if the GP suspects something’s wrong. This of course relies upon experience and awareness of the disease.

Those who think they have no time for bodily exercise will sooner or later have to find time for illness

Physical activity is for both prevention and survivorship

In theory, it’s common knowledge that regular exercise is a proven way to reduce the risk of many common health conditions. However, recent figures revealed that 62% of UK adults weren’t aware that lack of regular physical activity increases the risk of bowel cancer. According to Professor John Saxton, Professor in Clinical Exercise Physiology at Northumbria University, physical activity and leading a sedentary lifestyle are actually independent risk factors. This means that the odd bit of exercise doesn’t cancel out sedentary behaviour, and people should adopt a generally more active lifestyle along with regular exercise.

He also stressed the importance of exercise for those who have already had bowel cancer (and other cancers too). While it’s a great way to reduce one’s risk of developing the disease, it can also be extremely beneficial for those regaining their health after treatment.

For anyone who claims their schedule is too busy to incorporate regular exercise, Professor Saxton says, “those who think they have no time for bodily exercise will sooner or later have to find time for illness”.

Each patient is different

Later in the day we heard from Macmillan Nurse Consultant Claire Taylor, who talked us through the long term side effects of colorectal cancer treatment, some of which can persist a decade on. The role a doctor plays is essential, as understanding the potential short and long term effects can significantly impact someone’s experience of cancer. As she said in her talk, “surviving bowel cancer doesn’t necessarily mean living well”.

Being able to prepare for these side effects, whether you end up experiencing them or not, can be beneficial to the individual in the long run, both physically and psychologically. This linked strongly to the next talk of the day by Dr Claire Delduca, Macmillan Clinical Psychologist at the Velindre Cancer Centre, which focused on the psychological impact of a cancer diagnosis.

Being diagnosed with colorectal cancer will impact everyone differently, and there is obviously no set ‘coping method’. Some people will want to know everything about their condition and all the possibilities associated with it, while others may not. Being aware of how you cope as an individual will heavily influence your ability to do so, and how others are able to help you. This is why being offered psychological support is so important.

A cancer diagnosis doesn’t only affect the person who has it, but the people around them. This support network will play an important role in that individual’s journey, but are also taking a journey themselves. They too will need to know where they can receive support.

Patients’ perspectives are crucial

The final, and undeniably most emotive talk was from bowel cancer champion Deborah James. As it’s impossible to give her story justice on paper, you can watch her full talk here:

  • For more information on the training and information we provide for healthcare professionals, click here
  • To read personal stories of bowel cancer, like Deborah’s, click here
  • For more information about bowel cancer, click here

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