Detecting bowel cancer early can hugely increase your chance of survival. Nine out of ten cancers can be successfully treated if they are caught in the early stages before they have spread. Rapid detection of bowel cancer really does save lives.

Sadly, though, not everyone will visit the doctor soon enough. People give all sorts of reasons for this. Embarrassment is one. Not wanting to make a fuss is another.

Other people say they didn’t realise their symptoms were serious or they just didn’t get around to getting them checked.

Understanding bowel cancer

There are four stages to rectal and colon cancer, which are both types of bowl cancer:

  • At stage one the cancer is contained within the lining of the bowel or rectum.
  • By stage two the cancer has spread beyond the layer of muscle surrounding the bowel and may also have penetrated the surface of the bowel or nearby organs.
  • Stage three cancer has spread into nearby lymph nodes.
  • By stage four, the cancer has spread into other parts of the body, such as the liver.

Unfortunately, once bowel cancer has spread outside the colon or rectum, it is harder to treat and survival rates are lower. This is why early diagnosis is vital as generally people respond much better to treatment when the cancer is less developed.

Symptoms of bowel cancer

What are the symptoms to look out for? 

We generally recommend visiting your doctor if you notice any of the following:

  • Recurrent bleeding from your bottom or blood in your poo.
  • Severe pain in your stomach that gets worse after eating and doesn’t go away.
  • Changes in your poo that have gone on for longer than a month.
  • Unexplained weight loss.
  • Diarrhoea or watery poo sometimes interspersed with periods of constipation.
  • Feeling tired.

Most of the time, these symptoms will turn out not to be cancer. But occasionally they are linked to cancer of the rectum or colon.

The sooner you get a diagnosis, the sooner you can take action to prevent the disease from spreading and the greater your chance of successful treatment.

Causes of bowel cancer

The exact cause of bowel cancer isn’t known but certain factors are believed to increase your risk of developing the disease. These include:

  • Age – 9 out of 10 cases occur in people 60 plus
  • Diet – eating a diet high in red or processed meats and low in fibre increases your risk.
  • Being overweight/obese.
  • Lack of exercise.
  • Alcohol and smoking.
  • A close family member with the disease.
  • Long-term ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease can increase your risk.

What to expect


A consultant will talk to you about your symptoms, feel your tummy and check your bottom for any obvious lumps. You will be asked to give a blood sample to check for anaemia.

If your doctor is concerned, you will be referred for either a sigmoidoscopy or an endoscopy. Both involve examining your bowel using a flexible tube with a camera attached to one end of it. An endoscopy is a more in-depth procedure, examining the whole of the large bowel, compared to a sigmoidoscopy, which investigates the lower end only.

A less invasive diagnosis investigation is the CT colonoscopy, which could be an alternative test for you, depending on the recommendation from your doctor.


If you are diagnosed with bowel cancer, treatment will depend on the type and location of the cancer and how far it has developed. You may be offered chemotherapy, radiotherapy or surgery, 

The good news is that bowel cancer survival rates have more than doubled in the last 40 years. More than half (57%) of people with bowel cancer survive for 10 years or more.

Doctors are getting better at diagnosing it and better at treating it. However, it still depends on you taking the first step. If you spot any of the symptoms, talk to a specialist doctor.