Bowel cancer

Bowel cancer can usually be treated when diagnosed at an early stage

Typically, when diagnosed at an early stage, the treatment of bowel cancer can be highly successful. Bowel cancer screening tests make it possible to also spot early signs of bowel cancer before it even develops. Specialist advice is available so you can feel reassured that you are getting the highest level of healthcare to diagnose and treat the symptoms you are experiencing.

About bowel cancer

Bowel cancer, also known as colon cancer or colorectal cancer, affects the large bowel or colon.
  • The general risk of developing bowel cancer is 7% for men and 5% for women
  • Each year 41,000 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer in the UK
  • 90% of cases are diagnosed in people over 50 years of age
  • 2,500 younger people (under 50 years of age) are also diagnosed each year in the UK
  • Current statistics show that 57% of people diagnosed with bowel cancer will survive for 10 years
  • If the cancer is diagnosed early (Stage 1) there is an almost 100% chance of cure
  • Bowel cancer detected late (Stage 4) leads to a five-year survival rate of around 40%
  • The NHS Bowel cancer screening programme is being made available for anyone over 55 years of age
  • Bowel cancer screening saves lives as it detects bowel polyps before they turn into cancerous cells

The exact cause of bowel cancer is not known, however there is an increased risk associated with:

  • Age – bowel cancer is most common in over 50 year olds
  • Family history – if an immediate relative developed bowel cancer under age 50, your lifetime risk is higher than most and screening is required even before you turn 50.
  • Diet – particularly a high intake of red or processed meat with a low intake of fibre
  • Weight – being obese or overweight and generally inactive
  • Alcohol and smoking
  • Previous history of colon polyps

Symptoms of bowel cancer

Bowel cancer symptoms vary and can also be similar to those experienced for other gastroenterological conditions.

Common symptoms can include:

  • A change in bowel habit from your usual frequency and consistency
  • Frequent diarrhoea or loose bowel movements
  • Frequent passing of blood in your stools (bright blood or mixed into the stool)
  • A sensation of not having emptied your bowels fully
  • Unexplained abdominal pain
  • Bloating or discomfort caused by eating
  • Unintentional weight loss and loss of appetite
  • Anaemia or low blood count
  • Excessive tiredness, linked to anaemia

The symptoms of bowel cancer may not necessarily make you feel unwell, however they are usually persistent, so it is important to be aware of your body and pay attention to any distinct alteration to your normal patterns.

Bowel cancer can sometimes present with no symptoms at all. This explains why bowel cancer screening is so important for people of a certain age. An awareness of previous family history of bowel polyps or bowel cancer is essential to considering the need for screening for this condition.

Consultation with a specialist, who can conduct the necessary diagnostic tests, is the first step to better understanding your symptoms.

Bowel cancer diagnosis

The only way to truly diagnose bowel cancer is to get tested by a GI specialist. There are a number of examinations that can accurately diagnose bowel cancer and assess its stage of development.

A primary test for bowel cancer could involve a simple stool test, where the doctor is looking for blood or abnormal DNA.

Seeing blood may not mean cancer as there are many other common conditions that could be causing this symptom (e.g. haemorrhoids, fissures).

If there is blood, you are likely to require further testing to definitively rule out bowel cancer.

A flexible sigmoidoscopy involves passage of a flexible camera into the rectum and distal colon, after preparation using an enema.

This examination is invasive but only looks at the last part of the colon. The risk of perforation is very low (1 in 10,000) and sedation isn’t usually required.

If any bowel polyps are discovered then a full colonoscopy will be required.

A colonoscopy is the best way to fully assess the colon and detect bowel cancer.

This examination is invasive and assesses the entire length of the colon, using a special flexible tube with a camera called a colonoscope. Formal bowel preparation is necessary the day before the procedure.

Polyps that are found can be removed during the procedure, and biopsies taken where indicated.

Whilst the risk is still low, there is a chance of perforation (1 in 1,200).

A double contrast (virtual) CT scan can be performed to assess the colon looking for signs of bowel cancer or bowel polyps.

It is a useful non-invasive test, but does require cleansing of the bowel prior to the procedure. However, small polyps can be missed. Tissue samples cannot be taken, so if the results highlighted an abnormality, a full colonoscopy would be required.

Bowel cancer screening saves lives

Bowel cancer screening is a way to detect the early signs of bowel cancer before the cancer develops.

By carrying out the usual diagnostic tests, small bowel polyps can be spotted and removed, even if you don’t have any related symptoms.

If the doctor does detect bowel polyps then you can be regularly assessed by surveillance endoscopy thereby reducing the risk of developing cancer.

Bowel cancer screening is thought to prevent two people from getting bowel cancer, for every 300 screening tests performed. This will also prevent one person from dying of bowel cancer, as success of treatment is largely linked to the stage at which the cancer is diagnosed.

Find out more regarding the benefits of bowel cancer screening

Bowel cancer treatment

The success of bowel cancer treatment is linked to the stage of bowel cancer as well as the exact location within the bowel and whether it has spread.

Treatments may include:

  • Radiotherapy – using radiation to attack cancer cells
  • Chemotherapy and biological therapy – using medication to attack cancer cells
  • Surgery – where the affected part of the large bowel is removed.
    • This is the most effective way to treat bowel cancer, particularly if the cancer is limited to the bowel.
    • It can usually be performed using keyhole surgery which means a faster recovery , small scars and less pain after the procedure.
    • In some cases, dependent on the location of the growth, surgery may lead the need for a stoma where the bowel opens onto the skin on the front of the abdomen. This can be an ileostomy or a colostomy. It can be permanent or temporary. This will all be discussed with you prior to surgery so that you are fully aware of the implications for you.

Bowel cancer that is detected in Stage 1 of development typically stands almost 100% chance of recovery, as cancerous bowel polyps can be removed and then carefully monitored for new growths.

Surgery is most likely with Stage 4 bowel cancer.

Read FAQs about bowel cancer treatment

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Whether your gastrointestinal symptoms started recently or are long-standing, our specialists can help diagnose and manage your condition. Please contact us to arrange a consultation with one of our specialist team. A consultation with a specialist to discuss the necessary diagnostic tests is the first step.