Bowel cancer 


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.

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 that leads to the anus through which stools are passed.

NHS cancer screening

There are some types of cancers for which you can get free, routine screening

Bowel cancer is a general term for cancer that begins in the large bowel. Depending on where 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.

Who is affected by bowel cancer?

In England, bowel cancer is the third most common type of cancer. In 2009, there were 41,142 new cases of bowel cancer registered in the UK:

  • 18,431 cases were diagnosed in women, making it the second most common cancer in women after breast cancer
  • 22,711 cases were diagnosed in men, making it the third most common cancer after prostate and lung cancer

Approximately 72% of bowel cancer cases develop in people who are 65 or over. Two-thirds of bowel cancers develop in the colon, with the remaining third developing in the rectum.

Who's at risk?

Things that increase your risk of getting bowel cancer include:

  • Age  around 72% of people diagnosed with bowel cancer are over 65
  • 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  aving 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

Read more about the causes of bowel cancer and preventing bowel cancer.

Bowel cancer screening

Currently, everyone between the ages of 60 and 69 is offered bowel cancer screening every two years, and the screening programme is currently being extended in England to those aged 70 to 75.

Screening is carried out by taking a small stool sample and testing it for the presence of blood (faecal occult blood test).

In addition, an extra screening test is being introduced over the next three years for all people at age 55. This test involves a camera examination of the lower bowel called a flexible sigmoidoscopy.

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

Read more about screening for bowel cancer and how bowel cancer is diagnosed.

Treatment and outlook

Bowel cancer can be treated using a combination of surgery, chemotherapyradiotherapy and, in some cases, biological therapy. As with most types of cancer, the chance of a complete cure depends on how far the cancer has advanced by the time it is diagnosed.

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

Read more information about how bowel cancer is treated and living with bowel cancer.

Want to know more?

Last reviewed: 29/08/2012

Next review due: 29/08/2014


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Comments are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

Vaileria said on 12 December 2012

I was having difficulty in passing complete colon.I felt pain in the middle of stomach.I had several different assessments but only the colonoscopy test recognized my tumor. My age made physicians look for other factors than colon cancer, but as long as you got utilizing, a process of test eliminations will find it.

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martin111 said on 05 December 2012

The people have spoken:

Being told to you need a bowel cancer screening means less embarrassment and more pressure to have it done. If it saves lives, which it will, perhaps there should be screening for many types of cancer in the same appointment?

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johnnya said on 19 January 2012

I had a Colonoscopy in Sept 2011 4 days after my son got married and a 6cm long polyp was found. Biopsies were taken but I was told there and then that I had Cancer. The results from biopsies came back benign.
I had a second colonoscopy in Sept when I was told that it still looked suspicious and could be cancer in its early stages. Then I had an operation to remove the polyp in October. After 4 weeks of waiting the results were benign!!
What a terrible couple of months me, my wife and family went through all because "someone jumped the gun" with my diagnosis.

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muppetmagic said on 24 July 2011

well guys! its now a year since i got my diagnosis of terminal im still on chemo but im still here! i was given some great words of comfort from my friends about this horrible disease and it was that although it is a parasitic disease you should live with it rather than let it take over your life! good luck.

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Marinamagic said on 20 July 2011

Went for the results of my colonoscopy today(,as it was 6 weeks ago I felt very up beat as I was sure that if they had found anything my appointment would have been much sooner.) Good news I do not have bowel cancer,but where do we go from here as the symptoms are still the same??So we talk about medication ,which the consultant was not very happy about ,and on to diet.So it was suggested that after a chat with my doctor,that I consider leaving out,for a 2 week period ,each,various foods.i.e.carbs,if no change then protein etc etc. So intend to give all this a try and will come back with any positive ideas at a later date.I hope this helps anyone looking for the same answers as me and wish all good luck for the future.

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Marinamagic said on 07 June 2011

I had the colonoscopy yesterday with some sedation,so I was aware and looking at the screen but felt nothing.Looking back I'm not sure I was awake all the time.
The worse part was the day before when you have to drink 4 litres of a preparation (to totally clear the bowels. )at set times.8am/10am/6pm/8pm.Nothing happened 'til 9.30am .I did as suggested put some fruit squash in the liquid but NOT blackcurrant.I suppose it is a good way to detox.!!
4 specimens were taken for biopsy and a wait of 2/3/weeks for results.I was told that it looked pretty good,so I'm thinking positive.

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Marinamagic said on 07 May 2011

I had a sigmoidoscopy yesterday,not painful,and am to be referred for a colonoscopy.Consultant said he did not think it was cancer but there were significant changes to warrant further investigation.
I am an optimist so am concerned but not too worried.Symptoms are the same,still have constant discomfort in my stomach and abdomen,but not what I would call pain.I do not eat large meals and don't snack......have not lost any weight!!

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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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