Pharmacists are well placed to advise patients on what to avoid to prevent this common cancer, writes Sophia Lowes
Bowel cancer, also known as colorectal cancer, starts in the colon (large bowel) or back passage (rectum). It’s the fourth most common cancer with around 42,000 cases diagnosed every year in the UK.
But more than half of these cases could be prevented. And not only that, but diagnosing bowel cancer early makes a huge difference too. When it is caught at the earliest stage, more than 9 in 10 people will survive their disease for 10 years or more.
Pharmacists can play a key role in helping people to reduce their risk of bowel cancer, raising awareness of bowel screening and encouraging customers to seek further help when necessary.
As with most cancers, the risk of bowel cancer increases with age. Most cases are in people over 50. A family history of bowel cancer, or other bowel conditions, such Crohn’s disease, can also increase a person’s risk.
But there are proven steps everyone can take to reduce their risk of bowel cancer. And they can help to reduce the risk of other diseases too. Take a look at our top tips to share with your customers:
If customers report any of the following, you should encourage them to talk to their doctor:
You should also encourage your customers to get to know what’s normal for them, including their bowel movements. That way they’ll be more likely to notice changes. And if they do notice any unusual or lasting changes, they should speak to their doctor.
And even if a change isn’t on the list above, when a customer asks for advice about a change they’re worried about, make sure they talk to their doctor. In most cases it won’t be cancer, but it’s best to get it checked out.
You’re also in a great position to be able to notice if customers are repeatedly buying medications to treat the same symptom – and act as the nudge they need to see their doctor about it. Just asking what their doctor said about it can be a great way to start a conversation and find out more.
Even if a customer hasn’t asked you specifically about bowel cancer symptoms, there may still be an opportunity to signpost them to the UK’s bowel cancer screening programme.
Screening is for healthy people without symptoms. People aged 60-74 who are registered with a doctor are automatically invited to complete a home test every two years in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. In Scotland, the age range is 50-74 years.
Invitations and screening tests are sent in the post. You can encourage customers to register with their local GP to make sure they receive an invitation. They should read the information with the test to decide whether they’d like to take part. You can also offer support and tips on how to use the screening test kit for customers with questions; a fact sheet to talk through with customers can be found.
Many people find it difficult to make the most of their GP appointment, so pharmacists have an important role in supporting patients. You can begin a conversation about symptoms and encourage return visits if the problem doesn’t go away.
It’s important that people don’t just dismiss changes as ‘part of getting older’ or assume they are down to another health condition. If a customer keeps returning to the pharmacy for the same problem, make sure they see their doctor. Reassure them that they should be as stubborn as their symptom – and not worry that they are wasting your or the doctor’s time. You could help them work out how to describe the changes and how long they’ve had them for, so they can be prepared for their appointment.
Visual resources can be useful for raising awareness and prompting conversations. For example, a display showing the bowel screening kit, or offering customers a leaflet along with their medication. Cancer Research UK has lots of resources available for pharmacies to display or hand out – you can order them for free from www.cruk.org/publications.
Cancer Research UK also has nurse-led workshops and online training to help you feel more confident talking about ways to reduce the risk of cancer and the importance of spotting it early with your customers. You can find out more at cruk.org/talkcancer.
A positive way to address the sensitive topic of cancer is to encourage people to ‘take charge’ of their health, empowering them to seek help and advice if needed. While some symptoms can be tricky to discuss, there’s nothing to be embarrassed about: we’re all human!
Sophia Lowes is Cancer Research UK’s health information officer