Bowel Cancer: Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment

Bowel cancer incidence increases with age. About one in 20 people will develop bowel cancer during their lifetime, a figure that causes thousands of deaths per year. Bowel cancer screening has been shown to reduce this figure by 16%.

Risk Factors

80% of patients are above 60 years of age. You are more likely to develop bowel cancer if someone in your family has had colon cancer; if you have had an inflammatory bowel disease (e.g. Ulcerative Colitis or Crohn's disease) for the last 8 years or more; or if you have benign tumors, polyps, or familial adenomatous polyposis. Lifestyle factors — including smoking, lack of exercise, obesity, and an unhealthy diet — can also act as risk factors.


Symptoms of bowel cancer will depend on the site of the cancer. Initially, as the cancer is still small, you may be asymptomatic.

Later symptoms include blood mixed in with your feces; mucus mixed in with your feces; abdominal pain; a change in your usual bowel habits, resulting in diarrhea or constipation; a feeling of not completely emptying your rectum after opening your bowels; weight loss; tiredness; vomiting; or, in severe cases, the obstructed bowels.

You should consult your GP if you suspect that you have any of the symptoms listed. Your GP will examine your abdomen and rectum to feel if there is a cancer in the lower part of your rectum.

Subsequent testing includes a colonoscopy, where a tube is inserted into your bowel via the anus to see the inside of your intestines in detail and to perform a biopsy, if necessary; flexible sigmoidoscopy; CT scan; and a barium enema, where barium liquid is inserted into your rectum and then x-rays are taken.


Treatment depends on the site and state of spreading of your bowel cancer. Options include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy.

Your specialist can provide you with more information regarding surgery, in terms of scars and if you will require a temporary or permanent colostomy, i.e. where the surgeon connects an end of your bowel to your abdomen and feces is caught in a disposable bag.


Bowel cancer screening involves Fecal Occult Blood Testing, for which patients send off a sample of their stool so that it can be examined under a microscope to look for any blood that is not visible to the naked eye.

If the result is positive, you will invited to have a colonoscopy.

If you have close family members who have had colorectal or bowel cancer, or if there is a history of multiple polyps (such as Familial Adenomatous Polyposis), please consult your GP, as you may be entitled to colonoscopy screening.

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