Bowel Cancer

Bowel cancer is cancer in any part of the large bowel (colon or rectum). It is sometimes also known as colorectal cancer.

Bowel cancer grows from the inner lining of the bowel (mucosa). It may develop from growths on the bowel wall called polyps. Polyps are usually harmless (benign), but they may become cancerous (malignant) over time. Malignant polyps may be small or large, flat or mushroom-shaped.

If untreated, bowel cancer can grow locally into the deeper layers of the bowel wall. It can spread from there to the lymph nodes (glands). These small, bean-shaped masses are part of the body’s lymphatic system. If the cancer advances further, it can spread to other organs, such as the liver or lungs (metastasis).

In most cases, it develops fairly slowly and stays in the bowel for months or years before spreading.


In its early stages, bowel cancer often has no symptoms. However, some people may experience the following:

a change in bowel habits, such as diarrhoea, constipation, or smaller, more frequent bowel movements
a change in appearance of bowel movements (e.g. narrower stools or mucus in stools)
a feeling of fullness or bloating in the bowel or rectum
a feeling that the bowel hasn’t emptied completely after a bowel movement
blood in the stools or on the toilet paper
unexplained weight loss
weakness or fatigue
rectal or anal pain
a lump in the rectum or anus
abdominal pain or swelling
a low red blood cell count (anaemia), which can cause tiredness and weakness.
Not everyone who has these symptoms has bowel cancer. Other medical conditions, such as haemorrhoids or tears in
anal tissue, and some foods or medications, can also cause these changes.

If you have any of the above symptoms for more than two weeks, see your doctor for a check-up.

Bowel cancer statistics
Bowel cancer is the second most common cancer affecting people in Australia
In 2014, about 16,980 Australians are expected to be diagnosed with bowel cancer.
About one in 17 men and one in 25 women will develop bowel cancer before the age of 75.
It is most common in people over 50, but it can occur at any age.

Whilst not completely preventable, you can lower your risk of bowel cancer by eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly.

Enjoy a wide variety of nutritious foods –

eat plenty of vegetables, legumes (dried beans, peas or lentils), fruits & cereals (breads, rice, pasta & noodles), preferably wholegrain.
include lean meat, fish and poultry.
include milks, yoghurts and cheeses. Reduced fat varieties should be chosen where possible.
drink plenty of water.
Take care to –

limit saturated fat and moderate total fat intake.
limit your intake of red meat and processed meat.
choose foods low in salt.
limit your alcohol intake if you choose to drink.
consume only moderate amounts of sugars and foods containing added sugars.
And –

quit smoking.