Bowel cancer is the UK’s fourth most common cancer with around 110 new diagnoses every day (or around 41,700 a year). The disease occurs most commonly in people aged between 85 and 89, although it can affect people of any age. Incidence rates for bowel cancer have remained fairly constant since the early 1990s and are projected to fall by 11% by 2035.


Nevertheless, too many people continue to die from the disease, with 16,384 bowel cancer deaths in 2016. More than half of all cases of the disease (54%) are preventable.

April is Bowel Cancer Awareness monthSo, we are helping to increase the knowledge around this disease by sharing information about what causes bowel cancer, what should you look out for and how can you minimise your risk?


Causes of Bowel Cancer

Bowel cancer – also called colorectal cancer – affects the large bowel which is made up of the colon and rectum. Most bowel cancers develop from pre-cancerous growths called polyps.

Not every polyp will become cancerous but bowel cancer screening involves looking for these polyps in the bowel and removing them, either before they have an opportunity to become cancerous or in the early stages before the cancer has had an opportunity to spread.

Once cancer cells spread to other parts of the body – called metastatic or secondary cancer – the disease becomes far more difficult to treat.

Sadly, more than half of all bowel cancer cases are diagnosed in their later stages in the UK.

Symptoms of Bowel Cancer

It is important to know the signs to look out for which can be an indicator of bowel cancer. A number of public awareness campaigns have taken place in recent years to try and increase people’s understanding of the symptoms. You should visit your GP if you notice:

  • Blood in your stools or bleeding from your anus
  • Persistent and unexplained changes in bowel habits
  • Unexplained tiredness or weight loss
  • A pain or lump in your tummy

Less serious conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome share some of the same symptoms so it is important to get an accurate diagnosis if you are experiencing any of these to rule out possible bowel cancer.

Minimise your risks

There are certain steps you can take to minimise your risk of developing bowel cancer. These include:

  • Dietary changes – avoid eating processed meat and limit your intake of red meat to around 500g or less a week. Eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables and wholegrains and maintain a healthy body weight.
  • Lifestyle changes: Being physically active can reduce your risk of bowel cancer. Ideally try to do at least 30 minutes of physical activity, such as brisk walking, five times a week. Alcohol is linked to an increased risk of bowel cancer so drink only within safe limits and try to have at least two alcohol-free days a week. Smokers are more likely to develop polyps and the risk increases according to the number of cigarettes you smoke. The NHS has a Stop Smoking service that could help you to quit.
  • Awareness of the symptoms: It is important to know the symptoms of bowel cancer and to visit your doctor for a diagnosis.
  • Screening: Nine out of 10 people who are diagnosed with bowel cancer in its earliest stages will survive for five years or more. By contrast, fewer than one in 10 people will survive this long when they are diagnosed in the later stages. This illustrates the vital importance of an early diagnosis and one of the most effective ways of picking up bowel cancer early is through screening. The NHS has its own screening programme for all people over the age of 60 in England (50 in Scotland) using a home-based test kit which screens for signs of blood in the stools. However, many people are increasingly choosing private screening, which uses colonoscopies to look inside the colon and rectum for polyps, which can then be removed. The advantage of private screening is that it can be done at any age and at a time and place to suit you.


For advice, support or information about bowel cancer screening, contact us.