Scots have 'head in the sand' attitude towards risks of alcohol consumption and bowel cancer, says charity

Scots must be more aware of the link between alcohol consumption and bowel cancer, a charity has warned.

Around 3,700 people a year die from alcohol-related causes in Scotland according to most recent data, and people must become more aware of the risk factors and mitigations, said Alcohol Focus Scotland.

The charity also urged Scots to take up the offer of a bowel screening test, which can save lives.

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The most recent data, from 2015, shows that 578 men and 124 women were hospitalised with alcohol-related bowel cancer, while 164 men and 31 women died because of the disease.

Alison Douglas, Chief Executive Alcohol Focus Scotland, photographed at the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh
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“People really don't understand the link between alcohol and cancer,” said Alison Douglas, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland.

“The majority of us don't know that alcohol causes cancer, and that's a real problem. We all know drinking is risky, and it's up to us individually to make our own decisions about how much we choose to drink, but if we don't have the knowledge, and the information isn't available easily to hand, it makes it more difficult for us to make informed decisions.”

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Alcohol Focus Scotland has called for mandatory health warnings on alcohol products, similar to those on tobacco, and for guidance from the Chief Medical Officer to be displayed.

Many Scots have a “head in the sand” attitude to the risks of alcohol consumption and bowel cancer, Ms Douglas said, and she urged people to take up offers of bowel screening.

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Professor Bob Steele heads up the Scottish Bowel Screening Programme and is the lead specialist on bowel cancer in Scotland

"It's probably for many of us our worst fear to get a diagnosis of cancer,” she said.

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"We just don't want to engage with or hear about cancer, and that is a challenge for people that are trying to communicate health information and trying to help people reduce the risks where they can.

"We've all got a genetic inheritance that puts us at greater or lesser risk but we all have control over what we eat and drink, and how we exercise - things that we can actually influence and take control of, and alcohol consumption is one of them.”

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Professor Bob Steele, senior research fellow at Dundee University and founder of the Scottish Cancer Prevention Network, also urged people to take up screening.

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Tests are offered to everyone in Scotland aged 50 to 74, every two years.

Uptake is around 60 per cent, and Prof Steele would like to see this increase.

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The main reasons for people avoiding the test are being put off by its nature, being afraid of a cancer diagnosis, or simply being “too busy”, he said.

But early detection of bowel cancer could be life-saving.

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“The fundamental importance is that bowel cancer in its early stages is a curable disease, and in its late stage it's incurable,” said Prof Steele.

“If you find a very early bowel cancer that's treated with surgery – and sometimes it doesn't even need surgery, sometimes it can be removed at the same time as a colonoscopy – whereas for late stage disease there's very little chance of cure, it’s as simple as that.

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“We know that the best way of detecting early bowel cancer is by screening, because early bowel cancer doesn't cause symptoms, so by the time you actually have symptoms that have been caused by a bowel cancer it's usually quite an advanced tumour.”

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