Bowel cancer is a general name for cancer that begins in the large bowel. Depending on where the cancer begins, bowel cancer is sometimes called colon or rectal cancer.
Cancer can sometimes begins in the small bowel (small intestine), but small bowel cancer is much rarer than large bowel cancer.
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Bowel cancer is one of the most common kind of cancer diagnosed in the UK, with around 40,000 new cases diagnosed every year.
About 1 in every 20 people in the UK will have bowel cancer in their lifetime.
What are the signs and symptoms
The three main symptoms of bowel cancer are blood in the stools (faeces), changes in bowel habit – such as more frequent, looser stools – and abdominal (tummy) pain.
However, these symptoms are very widespread and most people with them do not have bowel cancer. For example, blood in the stools is more often caused by haemorrhoids (piles), and a change in bowel habit or abdominal pain is usually the consequent of something you have eaten.
As almost 9 out of 10 people with bowel cancer are over the age of 60, these symptoms are more imperative as people get older. They are also more significant when they persist irrespective of simple treatments.
Most people who are eventually diagnosed with bowel cancer have one of the following combination of symptoms:
- a persistent change in bowel habit that makes them to go to the toilet more often and pass looser stools, usually together with blood on or in their stools
- a persistent change in bowel habit without blood in their stools, but with abdominal pain
- blood in the stools without other haemorrhoid symptoms, such as soreness, discomfort, pain, itching or a lump hanging down outside the back passage
- abdominal pain, discomfort or bloating always triggered by eating, sometimes resulting in a reduction in the amount of food eaten and weight loss
The symptoms of bowel cancer can be subtle and do not necessarily make you feel ill.
When to seek medical advice
Your doctor will probably perfomr a simple examination of your tummy and bottom to make sure you have no lumps.
They may also arrange for a simple blood test to inspect for iron deficiency anaemia – this can show whether there is any bleeding from your bowel that you haven’t been aware of.
In some conditions, your doctor may decide it is best for you to have a simple test in hospital to make sure there is no serious cause for your symptoms.
Make sure you return to your doctor if your symptoms persist or keep showing up back after stopping treatment, regardless of their severity or your age.
Who’s at risk?
It’s not known exactly the cause bowel cancer, but there are a number of things that can increase your risk. These include:
- age – almost 9 in 10 cases of bowel cancer happen in people aged 60 or over
- diet – a diet high in red or processed meats and low in fibre can increase your risk
- weight – bowel cancer is more common in people who are overweight or obese
- exercise – being inactive increases the risk of getting bowel cancer
- alcohol and smoking – a high alcohol intake and smoking may increase your chances of getting bowel cancer
- family history – having a close relative (mother or father, brother or sister) who developed bowel cancer under the age of 50 keeps you at a greater lifetime risk of developing the condition
Some people have an increased risk of bowel cancer since they have another condition that affects their bowel, such as severe ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease, over a long period of time.
How to perform bowel cancer screening
Bowel screening is available to men and women aged 50 to 74 across Scotland to help find bowel cancer early when it can often be cured.
Bowel screening requires taking a simple test at home every 2 years. The test looks for hidden blood in your poo, as this could mean a higher chance of bowel cancer.
Treatment and outlook
Bowel cancer can be treated using a combination of different treatments, depending on where the cancer is in your bowel and how far it has spread.
The main treatments are:
- surgery – the cancerous section of bowel is removed; it is the most effective way of treating bowel cancer, and is all that many people need
- chemotherapy – where medication is used to kill cancer cells
- radiotherapy – where radiation is used to kill cancer cells
- biological treatments – a newer medication that increases the effectiveness of chemotherapy and stops the cancer spreading
As with most types of cancer, the chances of a complete cure depends on how far it has advanced by the time it is diagnosed. If the cancer is confined to the bowel, surgery will usually be able to completely take it out.
Overall, 7 to 8 in every 10 people with bowel cancer will live at least one year after diagnosis. More than half of those diagnosed will live at least another 10 years. Every year, around 16,000 people die due to bowel cancer.