5 things to know about bowel cancer

Cancer Council NSW
Diagram of a bowel

Bowel cancer is the third most common cancer in Australia, with 15,250 Australians diagnosed each year.

Although it’s more common in people aged over 50, bowel cancer can occur at any age. It’s important to know the risk factors, the symptoms and how to detect it as early diagnosis is key to increasing the success of treatment.

Here are five things to know about bowel cancer.

1. Other names for bowel cancer

Bowel cancer is also known as colorectal cancer, colon cancer or rectal cancer, depending on where it starts. The cancer grows from the inner lining of the bowel and usually develops from small growths called polyps which can become invasive. If untreated, bowel cancer can grow into the deeper layers of the bowel wall and spread to the lymph nodes.

2. Bowel cancer causes

The exact cause of bowel cancer is not known but risk factors include:

  • older age
  • having many polyps in the bowel
  • bowel diseases such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis
  • lifestyle factors such as being overweight, a diet high in red meat or processed meats, drinking alcohol or smoking
  • strong family history
  • other diseases such as having ovarian or endometrial cancer
  • rare genetic disorders.

3. Signs of bowel cancer

A person may develop bowel cancer and not show any signs at its early stages. However, symptoms may include:

  • blood in stools
  • a change in bowel habit, such as diarrhea or constipation
  • a change in appearance or consistency of bowel movements
  • unexplained weight loss
  • weakness or fatigue
  • abdominal pain or swelling.

A full list can be found on our Bowel Cancer page.

4. Bowel cancer tests

Bowel cancer can be detected through tests which will depend on a person’s situation. These include general tests to check overall health and body function, tests to find cancer in the bowel, and tests to see if the cancer has spread.

As there can be no symptoms in the early stages of bowel cancer, screening is important. The National Bowel Cancer Screening Program offers free immunochemical faecal occult blood test (iFOBT) kits to Australians aged 50 to 74.

5. Preventing bowel cancer

You can lower your risk of bowel cancer by:

  • being physically active
  • maintaining a healthy weight
  • cutting out processed meat
  • cutting down on red meat
  • drinking less alcohol
  • not smoking
  • eating wholegrains dietary fibre and dairy foods
  • getting screened every two years if you’re aged 50 to 74.

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