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Top Aussie Surgeon Reveals Why Any of Us Could Have Bowel Cancer

Our Unprocessed podcast hosts, Clara and Grace, sat down with colorectal consultant and general surgeon Penelope De Lacavalerie to get to the bottom of soaring rates of late-stage cancer diagnoses in young people. Here’s what she wants people of all ages to know about Australia's second deadliest cancer.

Contrary to popular belief, bowel cancer isn’t a disease affecting the elderly alone, but a widespread condition across all ages, with rates rapidly growing among young people. The bad – or, perhaps, worse – news? It’s the second deadliest cancer in the Australia and it will afflict 1 in 15 of us. The good news? Early intervention saves lives. Dr Penelope De Lacavalerie takes us through the major risk factors for the disease and what we can do to combat them. Don’t forget to check the episode out to get the full scoop.

Don’t overlook the signs

In this episode of the podcast, Penelope reveals the growing incidences of late diagnoses – particularly in young people. One of the reasons comes down to our rationalisation of symptoms and the disbelief that it could be cancer. In other cases, patients – particularly women – experience dismissal from doctors. 

“Women tend to get their diagnosis more delayed than men – women tend to go to GPs more, we talk about symptoms more, but despite all that, we get diagnosed later, mainly because we rationalise our symptoms as being normal,” Penelope says. “We rationalise a lot, and when we don’t we can find when we go to our doctors,  sometimes they explain it as something benign or something not to worry about.”

So, what are the signs? Penelope says there are a number of red flags – literally – to look out for.

“No blood in your poo is normal,” she says. “Never, no one day, no one teaspoon, not once every three months, I do not care, it's not normal.”

The doctor says young people can often underestimate their chance of developing the disease, often brushing aside textbook symptoms. Let’s unpack some of the major signs:

  • Changes in bowel habits – we’re talking about things like diarrhoea, constipation and changes in frequency of bowel movements, it’s all relevant.
  • Blood in stool – this can be red or even dark and tar-coloured stool.
  • Abdominal pain– cramps, bloating, or persistent discomfort.
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Anaemia – weakness, fatigue, and pale skin often come along with anaemia.
  • A feeling of incomplete bowel movements
  • Bowel obstructionin some cases, bowel cancer may cause a partial or complete blockage in the bowel, leading to symptoms such as severe abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and inability to pass gas or have a bowel movement.

If you’re experiencing any of these, no matter how certain you are that it’s not cancer, Penelope says it’s vital to get checked anyway. Maybe it’s not cancer, it could be all manner of other conditions, but the surgeon says early diagnosis is integral to increasing your survival rate.

Risk factors

There are a number of factors that can spike your risk for bowel cancer,:

  • Being over 50
  • A history of colon polyps or bowel disease
  • A family history of the disease
  • Genetic syndromes like adenomatous polyposis (FAP)
  • Having type 2 diabetes
  • Being obese
  • Smoking and drinking excessively
  • Poor diet

Penelope also says excess alcohol is a major risk factor for the disease – it’s also one of the easiest factors to mitigate.

“Alcohol is one of the modifiable risk factors – things we can change – to prevent ourselves having polyps and then cancer.”

So, what should you do? Well, if you’re here in Australia, you’re probably well aware of the drinking culture that is especially prevalent among young people. But the Cancer Council advises those who haven’t started drinking not to start at all, particularly if it’s not something you’re interested in. Now the general safety guidelines recommend keeping your intake below 2 standard drinks a day – but the goal is to limit your intake as much as possible; if you can drink less often than that number and take in smaller amounts, you’re doing well. 

Bowel Cancer Australia: Never2Young

Penelope discusses the importance of Bowel Cancer Australia’s Never2Young campaign to raise awareness – the organisation is working to combat the myth that the disease doesn’t affect young people. In fact, a whopping 1 in 10 of those diagnosed with bowel cancer are under 50, with 1600 young Aussie developing the disease each year.

Between three months and two years prior to someone younger than 50 getting bowel cancer diagnosis, they all had one or two or three of the symptoms we talked about,” she says. “If it was diagnoses two years ago, it would have been just a polyp. Delaying going to your GP makes a huge difference.”


Keen to learn more helpful tips from Penelope? The surgeon reveals ways to reduce your risk for cancer, along with how to support loved ones with the disease and how to advocate for yourself to your doctor. Check out the jam-packed episode of Unprocessed with our passionate IQS hosts Clara and Grace.

For more information on bowel cancer, head on over to Bowel Cancer Australia.

4 Responses

I Quit Sugar

I Quit Sugar

April 11, 2024

Hey Emma! Be sure to go in with a list of symptoms, diagnosis ideas and tests you want to undertake – but, unfortunately some doctors will still flat out refuse further testing – as you’ve experienced – and when this is the case, sometimes the best move is to vote with your feet and find a new doctor who will listen. Online forums can be a good place to find doctors in your area who are receptive to their patients concerns and symptoms. All the best on your health journey!



April 11, 2024

How do you suggest we get a Dr to agree to further testing if you have any of the symptoms. Most will say oh keep a food diary for allergies or you have IBS… and what would be the next step after seeing a GP for symptoms?

I Quit Sugar

I Quit Sugar

August 11, 2023

Hey Ellen, thanks for commenting, such a great question! It’s recommended to avoid or minimise your consumption of processed meats, and this is because they raise our risk for bowel cancer (and other cancers too) – here’s why: one of the major risk factors with processed meats is their nitrite and nitrate content, this becomes a risk when you’re cooking at high temperatures when grilling or frying as these compounds can form N-nitroso compounds, which are known to be carcinogenic. High temps can also lead to the release of compounds known as HCAs and PAHs. These compounds can damage DNA and are linked to cancer development. But even if you’re not cooking your processed meats, you’re still taking in a high dose of salt and often preservatives. Plus the high haem iron content forms N-nitroso compounds when broken down in the gut, which can damage the cells lining the bowel. But the link between processed meats and cancer risk is dose-dependent, meaning that the more processed meats consumed, the higher the risk, so if you’re just eating a little every now and then, the risk is minimal. That’s why to reduce the risk of bowel cancer, it’s recommended to limit the consumption of processed meats and opt for healthier protein sources such as lean meats, fish, poultry, legumes, nuts and seeds.



August 11, 2023

What about specifically avoiding processed meats?

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