Bowel Cancer: How To Spot The Symptoms Plus Treatment And Prevention

How To Spot The Symptoms Of Bowel Cancer

Bowel cancer, also called colorectal cancer or colon cancer, includes cancer of your large bowel and cancer of your back passage (rectal cancer).

It’s the fourth most common cancer in the UK, after breast, lung and prostate cancer.

Around 41,600 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer each year, with a slightly higher rate in men.

Most bowel cancers affect people aged 65 or older, but as charity Beating Bowel Cancer reveals, the cancer is a slow grower - it can develop over a period of up to 10 years, and then begins to spread and affect other areas of your body.

“Most bowel cancers are in the large bowel and about 1 in 3 in the back passage," says Dr Paul Zollinger-Read, chief medical officer for Bupa.

"It’s most common in older people - more than eight out of 10 bowel cancers are diagnosed in people aged 60 or over. In many cases, it’s hard to know the exact cause but there are some things that put you more at risk.

“If you have a strong family history of bowel cancer, you’re more at risk of developing the disease. About one in 20 bowel cancers are caused by inherited conditions If someone in your family, and especially if a few people on the same side, have been diagnosed with bowel cancer, speak to your GP. They may refer you to a specialist genetics service."

Most bowel cancers start as benign innocent growths – called polyps – on the wall of the bowel, says a spokesperson from Beating Bowel Cancer.

"Polyps are like small spots or cherries on stalks and most do not produce symptoms. Polyps are common as we get older and most polyps are not pre-cancerous. One type of polyp called an adenoma can, however, become cancerous (malignant). If left undetected the cancer cells will multiply to form a tumour in the bowel, causing pain, bleeding and other symptoms."

Who is at risk?

“Other bowel conditions, such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease, can increase your risk of bowel cancer," says Dr Zollinger-Read. "If you have diabetes, you’re also at an increased risk of bowel cancer, although scientists currently aren’t exactly sure why this is.

“A poor diet, rich in red meat, processed food and fat, and low in fibre and calcium, also increases your risk of bowel cancer, as well as being obese, smoking and drinking excessive amounts of alcohol.

"The best way to reduce your risk of bowel cancer is to limit the amount of red meat, processed meat and fat in your diet. Focus on a diet rich in fruit and veg and high in fibre, and exercise regularly."


Mark George, colorectal consultant and general surgeon at London Bridge Hospital, says there are five key things that can help reduce your risk of getting bowel cancer:

  • Have a good diet that's high in fibre
  • Do regular exercise
  • Do not consume too much red or processed meat
  • Avoid getting overweight – watch what you eat
  • Participate in a bowel cancer screening program

"Rates of bowel cancer in the UK have risen over the last 30 years and whilst it is indisputable that many factors could have contributed to this, the role of diet is being considered as significant in the onset and development of the disease," says nutritionist at The Food Doctor, Alice Mackintosh.

"Much research demonstrates the protective nature of fibre, which ensures the digestive tract is kept motile and prevents toxic matter such as bile acids from accumulating that can potentially damage the cells on the intestinal wall. 5-10 portions of fruit and vegetables (predominantly veg) and wholegrains such as brown rice, oats, quinoa, rye bread and beans and pulses should help ensure adequate levels in the diet.

"The right types of fat also appear to have some involvement in the prevention of bowel cancer, largely because they discourage inflammatory reaction that can cause cells to mutate in the wrong way. Cutting out saturated fats in meat, dairy, confectionery and processed foods such as margarine, cakes, ready meals and takeaways is also recommended. Replace instead with fats from flaxseed, avocado, unrefined extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, seeds, nuts and oily fish."

Alice also recommends turmeric, rosemary, garlic and ginger.

"Turmeric is at the forefront, being incredibly rich in protective antioxidants," she says, "and also having the ability to inhibit inflammatory reactions controlled by COX and LOX mediators. Ginger, garlic and rosemary also perform similarly, and have been found to help promote healthy gut environments that are not conducive with the development of intestinal cancers."

Symptoms of bowel cancer

  • Bleeding from the rectum is a key symptom of bowel cancer, particularly if the blood is dark – this represents a more worrying picture than bright blood.
  • Any change in bowel habits can also suggest an increased risk, so it is important to be aware of any change in either the frequency or the consistency of the motions.
  • It is natural for bowel habits to vary from time to time, but increasing bowel frequency for longer than 4-6 weeks in particular should be discussed with a doctor.
  • Colicky abdominal pain is also a symptom of bowel cancer, especially if it persists and has an affect on your appetite.
  • As bowel tumours can cause bleeding, cancer of the bowel often causes a shortage of red blood cells, resulting in anaemia. This is most likely to be recognised by tiredness and occasionally breathlessness.

For more information on bowel cancer, visit the Beating Bowel Cancer website here.

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