Investigating bowel cancer in younger people in Northern Ireland
Medical oncologist, Dr Ashleigh Hamilton, tells us about the research she’s doing alongside her team of supervisors, as part of her PhD. The research, based at the Centre for Public Health at Queen’s University Belfast, hopes to understand more about what could be causing bowel cancer in younger people.
Why is this research needed?
Although relatively rare, bowel cancer is becoming more common in younger adults under the age of 50. The reason for more cases being diagnosed in this age group is not yet clear, but it’s likely there are multiple factors involved.
A bowel cancer diagnosis and its treatment also presents unique challenges for younger adults. The physical side effects, emotional toll, and practical issues such as employment and finance, may affect younger patients and their loved ones in different ways to older bowel cancer patients. It’s really important for us to get a better understanding of these issues so we can help to address them.
What is the research about?
There are three parts to the project. Part one is aimed at identifying the factors that may increase the risk of bowel cancer in younger people. This could include lifestyle factors in young adulthood (such as weight and alcohol intake) as well as factors in very early life (such as birth weight, being born by caesarean section, or having been breastfed). We plan to analyse data from large, anonymous, patient databases in Northern Ireland and the UK, to help answer these questions.
Secondly, we’ll compare some of the biological features of the bowel cancers, such as changes to genes, from younger and older patients who’ve had surgery in Northern Ireland. This will help us to understand if the way the bowel cancer grows and develops differs with age (for example, is it more or less aggressive in younger patients), and how this in turn affects survival.
Finally, we’ll be exploring the experience of treatment for younger bowel cancer patients to understand more about how it might affect them. We’ll be speaking to younger patients via virtual interviews to get an in-depth understanding of the impact of bowel cancer treatment on patients and their loved ones.
What difference will this research make to patients?
Understanding more about why bowel cancer is increasing in younger adults means we may be able to develop new ways of preventing it. The results could also help to identify individuals who are at higher risk of bowel cancer before the age of 50, who could then be targeted for early detection initiatives. Understanding how the cancer grows and behaves could also help to identify new treatments that may particularly benefit younger patients.
By listening to the experiences of younger bowel cancer patients we hope to highlight and understand their perspectives and priorities. We aim to raise awareness of the increase in early onset bowel cancer, highlighting this to both young adults and healthcare professionals such as GPs. Education regarding this disease is important with regard to people seeking help for their symptoms, and early referral for investigation.
This research is kindly funded by the HSC R&D Division, Public Health Agency in Northern Ireland. The supervisory team include Professor Helen Coleman, Dr Maurice Loughrey, Dr Finian Bannon and Dr Olinda Santin at Queen’s University, Belfast.