Bowel cancer 

Introduction 

Bowel cancer

Find out who's most at risk of bowel cancer, the questions to ask if you're diagnosed and the treatment options available.

Bowel cancer is a general term for cancer that begins in the large bowel. Depending on where in the bowel the cancer starts, bowel cancer is sometimes called colon cancer or rectal cancer.

Symptoms of bowel cancer include blood in your stools (faeces), an unexplained change in your bowel habits, such as prolonged diarrhoea or constipation, and unexplained weight loss.

Cancer can sometimes start in the small bowel (small intestine), but small bowel cancer is much rarer than large bowel cancer.

The large bowel

The bowel is part of the digestive system. It has two main purposes:

  • to absorb energy, water and nutrients from the food you eat
  • to pass out the remaining waste products from your body in the form of stools

The large bowel is made up of five sections:

  • The ascending colon runs from the end of the small intestine and up the right-hand side of the abdomen.
  • The transverse colon runs under the stomach and across the body from right to left.
  • The descending colon runs down the left-hand side of the abdomen.
  • The sigmoid colon is an S-shaped bend that connects the descending colon to the rectum. 
  • The rectum is the final section of the bowel. It is a small pouch that is connected to the outside opening of the bowel (the anus), through which stools are passed.

How common is bowel cancer?

In England, bowel cancer is the third most common type of cancer. An estimated 38,000 new cases are diagnosed each year.

In 2007, about 17,600 cases of bowel cancer were diagnosed in women, making it the second most common cancer in women after breast cancer. There were about 21,000 cases in men, making it the third most common cancer after prostate and lung cancer.

Approximately 80% of bowel cancer cases develop in people who are 60 or over. Two-thirds of bowel cancers develop in the colon, with the remaining third developing in the rectum.

In England, an estimated 16,000 people die from bowel cancer each year.

Factors that increase your risk of getting bowel cancer include:

  • Age: around 80% of people diagnosed with bowel cancer are over 60.
  • Diet: a diet high in fibre and low in saturated fat could reduce your bowel cancer risk. A diet high in red or processed meats can increase your risk.
  • Healthy weight: leaner people are less likely to develop bowel cancer than obese people.
  • Exercise: being inactive increases the risk of getting bowel cancer.
  • Alcohol and smoking: high alcohol intake and smoking may increase your chances of getting bowel cancer.
  • Family history and inherited conditions: having a close relative with bowel cancer puts you at much greater risk of developing the disease.
  • Related conditions: having certain bowel conditions can put you more at risk of getting bowel cancer.

Bowel cancer screening

In 2006, the NHS launched a screening programme for bowel cancer. It is recommended that everyone between the ages of 60 and 69 is screened every two years.

Screening is carried out by taking a small stool sample and testing it for the presence of blood.

Screening plays an important part in the fight against bowel cancer because the earlier the cancer is diagnosed, the greater the chance that it can be cured completely.

For more information, see Bowel cancer - screening.

Outlook

Bowel cancer can be treated using a combination of surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and, in some cases, biological therapy. As with most types of cancer, the outlook for an individual depends largely on how far the cancer has advanced by the time it is diagnosed.

If bowel cancer is diagnosed in its earliest stages, the chances of surviving for a further five years is 90%, and a complete cure is usually possible. However, bowel cancer that is diagnosed in its most advanced stage only has a five-year survival rate of 6% and a complete cure is unlikely.

Screening can diagnose cancer at its earliest stage and can increase the chance of successful treatment.

Want to know more?

  • show glossary terms
Blood
Blood supplies oxygen to the body and removes carbon dioxide. It is pumped around the body by the heart.
Disease
A disease is an illness or condition that interferes with normal body functions.
Stools
Stool (also known as faeces) is the solid waste matter that is passed from the body as a bowel movement.
Tissue
Body tissue is made up of groups of cells that perform a specific job, such as protecting the body against infection, producing movement or storing fat.

Last reviewed: 04/10/2010

Next review due: 04/10/2012

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Marinamagic said on 13 March 2011

I have had stomach pains and constant discomfort in my bowels since July 2010,after having a seafood meal.4 days of chronic pain,no food just sips of water and no bowel movement.Took senacot,which worked.Since then I have had bowels open 3--4 times a day.I eat a high fibre diet,don't drink or smoke,am fairly active and fit otherwise.I did the NHS bowel cancer check(which incidentaly was very easy to do at home once I had the "bits" set up)The reply came back within 14 days as clear,but if symptoms persisted to see the doctor.I did and she recommended a colonoscopy,so I'm waiting for appointment.I have left it this long as my husband had been diagnosed with prostate cancer in March'10 an thought he did not need the extra stress.Will be in touch.

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Nellwyn Stellens said on 21 February 2011

My main symptom was constant nausea that got worse when eating and worse still when opening bowels. I didn't start to lose weight or pass blood or anything until it was almost too late.

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muppetmagic said on 08 February 2011

i was admitted to hospital on 13 june 2010 wih constipation the doctors could feel that i had a massive blockage in my bowels so they did ct scan. by fluke they found 2 massive tumors in my liver on doing another ct scan they found speckles all over my lungs i was told these were not primary and the doctors thought that it was in my bowels. on 2nd july i was rushed in for emergency surgery before my bowels burst and killed me. they gave me a colostomy. if that was my only problem i would be over the moon. since then i have had 8 cycles of chemotherapy my prognosis is still terminal.i have also since found that i have a massive tumour wich comes out into my pelvic cavitiy.
it really annoys me that i have been dealt this hand in life because i am now only 37years old i have five children ranging from 20 down to 6years old.and a grandaughter. i worked am a nonsmoker, dont drink or smoke or eat processed food to have found out all this by accident. generally i had a really happy healthy life. i was told last week that the cancer is no longer shrinking and that i should live the life that ihave left. this is heart breaking to my husband and babies.

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homsey said on 25 November 2010

I had early stage bowel cancer, one tumour in lower left hand side, was told i would be in hospital for upto 10 days, infact was in 33 days with a spell in intensive care, was also told at the time that it was a straight forward op and would be reversed in 6 months however have been told now that it cannot be reversed and i am stuck with a stoma on my right side and one on my left side, to say i am dissapointed is an understatement.....regards h

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Hamcatsmammy said on 03 November 2010

I had no idea i had bowel cancer, i was 51 worked full time, fit & active, my family health history came up in conversation during a consultation for my daughter! lucky for me the consultant insisted i should have screening has my father & grandfather both had bowel cancer. I reluctantly had a colonoscope only to discover i had polyps that had turned cancerous. 2 weeks later after scans, blood test etc, i had surgery. I was so relieved to find it was caught early so no chemo, or rad, treatment was needed but best of all no stoma. So if you have any close family history of bowel cancer please get checked. I later found out that my cancer is genetic so all my family are now aware and are being tested to see if they carry the gene.

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sujabi said on 13 July 2010

I had been experiencing irregular bowel movements (I am 82) and had been to two doctors (I live in Jersey and UK). I said that the discharges had been frequent and mucus. No pain at all presented. Stools were taken in both case. I doubted the findings and browsed nhsdierct symptoms for bowel cancer. They were so relevant I requested colonoscpy. The results found a cancer (Dukes B) in the lower bowel which was excised - a reversal of my ileostomy is due shortly. On enquiring how long I must have had this tumour I was told - about 7 years! I feel somewhat aggrieved that we are told so much about prostate, strokes, smoking, drinking etc but nothing, until recently, about bowel cancer - the third most dangerous form. Had I had an examination ten years ago I might only have had some polyps to excise.

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Helen M W said on 02 April 2010

My husband & I have both undergone the NHS screening for bowel cancer and were found to be "clear".
Two weeks ago my husband (aged underwent emergency surgery for a "blockage" when 2 tumours were discovered, one where the small intestine joins the colon and one in the colon. Faecal screening does not detect everything it seems.
Be very aware of any stomach pain, bloating, burping & difficulty in eating. His tumours were found in the nick of time after he vomited bile violently after having the sympoms above.
Take unexplained stomach ache which comes & goes very seriously.

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