The bowel is part of the digestive system. It is made up of the small bowel (small intestine) and the large bowel (colon and rectum).
Bowel cancer is the fourth most common cancer in the UK, with over 42,000 people diagnosed with bowel cancer every year.
What is bowel cancer?
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 or rectal cancer.
Cancer is when abnormal cells start to divide and grow in an uncontrolled way. The cells can grow into surrounding tissues or organs, and may spread to other areas of the body.
What are the symptoms of bowel cancer?
Bowel cancer is very treatable but the earlier it’s diagnosed, the easier it is to treat.
The main symptoms of bowel cancer are:
- Persistent blood in your stool – for no obvious reason or associated with a change in bowel habit
- A persistent change in your bowel habit – usually having to poo more or looser poo
- Persistent lower abdominal (tummy) pain, bloating, or discomfort – caused by eating and may be associated with loss of appetite
- Unexplained weight loss
- Extreme tiredness for no obvious reason
Most people with these symptoms don’t have bowel cancer as other health problems can cause similar symptoms. But if you have one or more of these, or if things just don’t feel right, go see your GP.
Sometimes, a tumour can block the bowel, causing pain in the stomach area, bloating and feeling or being sick. This is called a bowel obstruction. You may also be unable to empty your bowels or pass wind. If you think you have a blocked bowel, see your GP straight away or go to a hospital accident and emergency department.
What causes bowel cancer?
Anyone can develop bowel cancer, but there are some risk factors that make you more likely to get it:
- Age – almost 9 in 10 people with bowel cancer are aged 60 or over
- Diet – diets high in red or processed meats and low in fiber increases your risk
- Family history – having a close relative who developed bowel cancer under the age of 60 puts you at greater risk of developing the condition
- Alcohol – may increase your risk
- Exercise – being inactive increases your risk of bowel cancer
- Obesity – being overweight increases your chances of getting bowel cancer
- Smoking – a third of cancers are linked with smoking cigarettes, cigars or chewing tobacco
If you are concerned about your family history, your doctor may advise regular screening for bowel cancer.
How is bowel cancer diagnosed?
If you think you have symptoms of bowel cancer, see your doctor immediately. The GP may decide to:
- Examine you for any lumps
- Arrange for a blood test to check for iron deficiency
- Arrange for a test in hospital to make sure there’s no serious cause of your symptoms
If your symptoms suggest you may have bowel cancer or the diagnosis is uncertain, you will be referred to your local hospital for a simple examination called a flexible sigmoidoscopy.
A flexible sigmoidoscopy is an examination of your rectum and some of your large bowel using a device called a sigmoidoscope, which is a long, thin tube with a camera on the end.
Most people with bowel cancer can be diagnosed by flexible sigmoidoscopy. However you may need a more extensive examination of the colon to confirm diagnosis, such as a colonoscopy or CT colonography.
How is bowel cancer treated?
Treatment for your bowel cancer depends on the size and stage of the tumour, how advanced it is, and your general health. Your doctor will discuss the treatment options with you and develop a programme for your needs.
The main treatments are:
- Surgery – to remove the cancerous section of the bowel
- Targeted therapies – a newer group of medicines that increases the effectiveness of chemotherapy and prevents cancer spreading
If the cancer is confined to the bowel, surgery is usually able to completely remove it.
If you’re unsure what treatment you should go for, or the above treatments don’t work for you, our team of expert specialists are here to help.