Bowel cancer

Bowel cancer is also called colorectal cancer and affects the large bowel which is made up of the colon and rectum.

Most bowel cancers occur from polyps, which are small growths which form inside the colon and rectum. Polyps are quite common and are usually non-cancerous and can be easily removed via a colonoscopy.

Bowel cancer is the fourth most common cancer in the UK after breast, prostate and lung cancer. Bowel cancer can occur at any age but it is most common in people aged over 50 years and affects both men and women.

Symptoms of Bowel Cancer

If caught early, bowel cancer is a very treatable and curable cancer. More than nine out of 10 people diagnosed with Stage 1 will survive five years or more after diagnosis. If you have any of the below symptoms, it is important to visit your GP to rule out cancer. The symptoms below can be attributed to a wide number of other less serious conditions and it not always indicative of cancer, however it is still vital to seek help from your GP.

  • Bleeding from the bottom or blood in your stool
  • A change in bowel habit (either constipation or diarrhoea)
  • A pain or lump in your abdomen
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Diagnosing Bowel Cancer

    Digital Rectal Exam

    Your GP will perform a digital rectal exam (DRE) to see if they can feel any visible lump in the rectum. This isn’t usually painful, but may be slightly uncomfortable. Some people may feel embarrassed at having to undergo this procedure, but you shouldn’t as it’s a very important exam towards diagnosing cancer and GP’s are very much used to dealing with these.


    A sigmoidoscopy involves inserting a fine tube with a camera that looks into the lower end of the bowel and rectum. Biopsies can be performed and any polyps removed and examined. This can be a slightly uncomfortable procedure but it doesn’t take long to perform. This is usually done at your local hospital.


    A colonoscopy works in a similar way to a sigmoidoscopy but will look at the entire colon and rectum. There is usually some preparation beforehand needed, which involves keeping to a low residue diet for a few days before and taking a strong laxative drink the day before or on the day to clear the bowel before the procedure. A light sedation or gas and air will be offered to help with the discomfort from the procedure. Again, this doesn’t take too long to perform and biopsies can be taken and any polyps removed and examined.

    Further Tests

    If your initial tests show that a tumour has been found then you may be sent for one of the tests below to confirm the extent of your cancer.

    CT Scan

    A CT scan or ‘computerised tomography’ uses x-rays to produce a 3D map of your body. This scan can help determine the extent of your cancer and check for any further spread. You may be given a drink and/or an injection of dye which helps to produce clearer images.

    MRI Scan

    Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) uses magnetic and radio waves to build up a picture of the inside of your body and produces more detailed pictures than a CT scan. This scan will be used if you have rectal cancer to determine whether your cancer can be removed with just surgery or whether you require radiotherapy beforehand. You will not be able to have this scan if you have a pacemaker, heart monitor or any metal clips due to the strong magnetic field. This type of scan is quite noisy and involves laying in an enclosed tube. You will be offered headphones to wear throughout the scan, which will give you contact to the radiographer.

    Ultrasound Scan

    You may be given an internal ultrasound if you have rectal cancer. This scan will look at the size and shape of the tumour by using ultrasound waves.

    PET Scan

    A PET scan or positron emission tomography offers a more detailed look inside the body and is usually only offered if there are secondary cancers involved such as in the lungs or liver. You will be injected with a mildly radioactive drug, you will then have to wait an hour for the dye to travel around the body and then you will be scanned.


    Further information and downloads can be found in the help and information section. Living with a bowel condition can affect you emotionally and socially; sometimes it can help to speak to others who understand your situation. The Bladder & Bowel Community Forum is available 24 hours today and will allow you to connect with those who share your condition. Start your own topic today or just follow one that interests you.

    Bowel Cancer Frequently Asked Questions

    What does early-stage bowel cancer feel like?

    Bowel cancer can be diagnosed based on three main symptoms, including the presence of blood in the stool (faeces), changes in bowel habits, such as more frequent and loose stools, and abdominal (tummy) pain. These symptoms are the most common in the early stages of bowel cancer.

    What colour is bowel cancer poo?

    The way your poo looks can give away a lot of information about your internal health. Some of the signs to watch out for include:

    • Blood in stools
    • Dark red or black poo that looks like tar
    • Bleeding from your bottom
    • Ribbon-like stool

    Be sure to visit your doctor if you start to notice any bleeding in your poo.

    Can bowel cancer be cured?

    Early detection and treatment can cure bowel cancer and prevent a recurrence. Sadly, a complete cure is not always possible, and cancer can sometimes return later on. When cancer has advanced to the point where surgery cannot be performed completely on it, there is a very low chance of a cure.

    What are the symptoms of bowel cancer in men?

    The main symptoms of bowel cancer are the same for both men and women. However there are some early symptoms of cancer in men that can include:

    • Changes in bowel habits
    • Blood in the rectal region
    • Changes in the urine
    • Urine that contains blood
    • Lumps in the testicles
    • Fatigue that is excessive
    • Weight loss that is unexplained