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Bowel cancer

Bowel cancer is a general term for cancer that begins in the large bowel. Depending on where the cancer starts, bowel cancer is sometimes called colon or rectal cancer.

Bowel cancer is one of the most common types of cancer diagnosed in the UK. Most people diagnosed with it are over the age of 60.

Symptoms of bowel cancer

The 3 main symptoms of bowel cancer are:

Most people with these symptoms do not have bowel cancer. Other health problems can cause similar symptoms. For example:

These symptoms should be taken more seriously as you get older and when they persist despite simple treatments.

Read about the symptoms of bowel cancer.

When to get medical advice

See your GP If you have 1 or more of the symptoms of bowel cancer and they have persisted for more than 4 weeks.

Your GP may decide to:

Make sure you see your GP if your symptoms persist or keep coming back after stopping treatment, regardless of their severity or your age. You'll probably be referred to hospital.

Read about diagnosing bowel cancer.

Causes of bowel cancer

The exact cause of bowel cancer is not known, but there are a number of things that can increase your risk, including:

Some people also have an increased risk of bowel cancer because they've had another condition, such as extensive ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease in the colon for more than 10 years.

Although there are some risks you cannot change, such as your age or family history, there are several ways you can lower your chances of developing the condition.

Find out more about:

Red meat and bowel cancer risk

Eating a healthy balanced diet

Losing weight

Health and fitness

Stopping smoking

Tips on cutting down on alcohol

Read more about the causes of bowel cancer.

Bowel cancer screening

To detect cases of bowel cancer sooner, the NHS offers 2 types of bowel cancer screening to adults registered with a GP in England:

Taking part in bowel cancer screening reduces your chances of dying from bowel cancer. Removing any polyps – small growths that can develop on the inner lining of your bottom (rectum) – found in bowel scope screening can prevent cancer.

However, all screening involves a balance of potential harms, as well as benefits. It's up to you to decide if you want to have it.

Read about bowel cancer screening, including more about what the 2 tests involve, what the different possible results mean, and the potential risks to weigh up.

Treatment for bowel cancer

Bowel cancer can be treated using a combination of different treatments, depending on where the cancer is in your bowel and how far it has spread.

The main treatments are:

As with most types of cancer, the chance of a complete cure depends on how far it's spread by the time it's diagnosed. If the cancer is confined to the bowel, surgery is usually able to completely remove it.

Keyhole or robotic surgery is being used more often, which allows surgery to be performed with less pain and a quicker recovery.

Read more about how bowel cancer is treated.

Living with bowel cancer

Bowel cancer can affect your daily life in different ways, depending on what stage it's at and the treatment you're having.

How people cope with their diagnosis and treatment varies from person to person. There are several forms of support available if you need it:

You may also want advice on recovering from surgery, including diet and living with a stoma, and any financial concerns you have.

If you're told there's nothing more that can be done to treat your bowel cancer, there's still support available. This is known as end of life care.

Read about living with bowel cancer.