Bowel Cancer

What is it?

Bowel cancer, also known as colorectal cancer, is a cancer of the lining of the colon or rectum.

Most bowel cancers develop from pre-cancerous growths called polyps that can change into cancer over time. Early detection and removal of pre-cancerous polyps prevents the development of bowel cancer.

To learn more, click on the following:

Quick Facts / Incidence & Prevalence
  • Australia has one of the highest rates of bowel cancer in the world.
  • Over 14,000 men and women Australians are diagnosed each year.
  • In Victoria alone, over 1,300 die annually – more than 3 times the states road toll.
  • Bowel cancer affects men and women of all ages, almost equally.
  • Risk increases with age.
  • 1 in 12 Australians will develop bowel cancer in their lifetime.
  • While 90% of bowel cancers occur in those 50 and over - around 1,000 younger Australians are diagnosed each year.
  • Screening every 1-2 years can reduce the risk of dying from bowel cancer by up to 33%.
Risk Factors

The risks listed below can be useful in understanding your risk of experiencing bowel cancer. Known high risk factors include:

  • Age - being 50 and over
  • Personal or family history of bowel cancer
  • Personal history of polyps, Ulcerative Colitis or Crohn’s disease.
  • Hereditary conditions of the bowel, such as familial adenomatous polyposis and hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer (HNPCC, also known as Lynch Syndrome)
  • Diet & Lifestyle - Research has shown that obesity, lack of exercise and a diet high in fat (especially saturated animal fat) and processed foods, and low in fibre can increase the risk of many cancers, including, bowel, lung and prostate cancers. Consumption of alcohol and smoking can also increase risk.

The exact cause of bowel cancer is unknown. Current research suggests that a combination of genetic or inherited factors, plus environmental influences are the most likely causes.


Bowel cancer can occur without any obvious warning signs in the early stages. Not everyone will have symptoms, and the symptoms can vary.

If you have any of the following common signs or symptoms, you should see your doctor who may suggest further testing:

  • Persistent change in bowel habits
  • Blood in the stool (bowel motion) – might be invisible to the naked eye
  • Abdominal bloating or cramping abdominal pain
  • Unexplained weight loss or loss of appetite

The risk for developing bowel cancer can be reduced through:

  • Getting screened [see ‘screening’ section]
  • Following a healthy high-fibre diet with a variety of foods and at least 5 serves of veggies, 2 serves of fruit, and wholegrain foods every day
  • Minimising the consumption of red and processed meats
  • Engaging in regular physical activity, 30 minutes on 5 or more days per week
  • Not smoking
  • Maintaining a healthy body weight
  • Drinking alcohol in moderation, no more than 2 standard drinks per day and 2 alcohol free days per week
  • Knowing your family history

Bowel cancer is preventable, treatable and beatable if detected early.

  • Medical guidelines recommend Australians 50 and over, with no family history of bowel cancer and no symptoms, should be screened for bowel cancer every 1 to 2 years which can reduce risk of dying from bowel cancer by up to 33%.
  • National Bowel Cancer Screening Program sends free test kits (FOB Test) from the Government, in the mail, for those turning 50, 55, 60 and 65.

A Faecal Occult Blood (FOB) Test is an easy, non-invasive test that can be done in the privacy of your own home to help prevent or detect bowel cancer. This test is a screening tool used to detect blood in the bowel motion (invisible to the naked eye), often released by polyps or bowel cancers.

Doing a FOB Test is easy – you just dip the brush in the loo, dab the toilet water on the test card, drop the card in the post and you’re done. Its a few minutes every 1 to 2 years that could save your life.

The FOB Test does not diagnose bowel cancer, but a positive result will require further investigation (usually a colonoscopy).

Australians not eligible for these free test kits, can purchase BowelScreen Australia® FOB Tests from participating community pharmacies, online or by phone for a total cost of less than $40 which includes pathology testing. Rebates may be available.


Several tests can be used to diagnose bowel cancer. They include:

  • Physical examination and history assessment
  • Digital rectal examination (a doctor inserts a lubricated, gloved finger into the rectum to feel for lumps)
  • Sigmoidoscopy/colonoscopy (a long narrow flexible camera is inserted through the anus to examine the rectum and colon, enabling a visual check of the bowel. Polyps or other tissue can be removed or biopsied)
  • Virtual Colonoscopy (A newer screening tool currently undergoing evaluation for accuracy and efficacy where the colon is inflated with air and a CT scanner image is taken)
  • Barium Enema (small tube inserted into the rectum with a liquid called barium delivered. With air added, barium is forced into creases of the bowel wall and allows the bowel lining to be seen clearly when x-rays are taken. Less accurate than a colonoscopy)

Survival of bowel cancer is closely related to the stage of the disease at diagnosis, and early detection through regular testing is important.

If you are in the high risk group, or experiencing any symptoms (regardless of age), it’s recommended that you see your doctor as soon as you can.

And remember, you should never be told you are too young to have bowel cancer. While bowel cancer is more common in people aged 50 and over, no age group is immune. If you have any questions or concerns, please speak to your GP.

  • Surgery is the main treatment for bowel cancer. The surgeon removes the section of the bowel affected by cancer and most times joins the two ends together.
  • Chemotherapy or radiotherapy is often used in addition to surgery.

Researchers are constantly developing new cancer treatments, which are tested through clinical trials.

Sometimes bowel cancer cannot be cured. In this case, the symptoms can still be treated using radiotherapy, chemotherapy, surgery and/or pain-killing drugs. Palliative care services can help people with incurable bowel cancer to live relatively normal and pain free lives.

More information

Let’s Beat Bowel Cancer

The Cancer Council in your state – 13 11 20 –

Bowel Cancer Australia – 1800 555 494 –

Healthdirect Australia –

National Bowel Cancer Screening Program (NBCSP) – 1800 118 868 NBCSP website