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Bowel cancer

Bowel cancer is a general term for cancer that begins in the large bowel. Bowel cancer is sometimes called colon cancer or rectal 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 cancer or rectal cancer.

Symptoms of bowel cancer include blood in your stools (faeces), an unexplained change in your bowel habits, such as prolonged diarrhoea or constipation, and unexplained weight loss.

Cancer can sometimes start in the small bowel (small intestine), but small bowel cancer is much rarer than large bowel cancer.

Who is affected by bowel cancer?

In England, bowel cancer is the third most common type of cancer. In 2009, there were 41,142 new cases of bowel cancer registered in the UK:

  • 18,431 cases were diagnosed in women, making it the second most common cancer in women after breast cancer
  • 22,711 cases were diagnosed in men, making it the third most common cancer after prostate and lung cancer

Approximately 72% of bowel cancer cases develop in people who are 65 or over. Two-thirds of bowel cancers develop in the colon, with the remaining third developing in the rectum.

Who's at risk?

Things that increase your risk of getting bowel cancer include:

  • Age  around 72% of people diagnosed with bowel cancer are over 65
  • Diet  a diet high in fibre and low in saturated fat could reduce your bowel cancer risk, a diet high in red or processed meats can increase your risk
  • Healthy weight  leaner people are less likely to develop bowel cancer than obese people
  • Exercise  being inactive increases the risk of getting bowel cancer
  • Alcohol and smoking  high alcohol intake and smoking may increase your chances of getting bowel cancer
  • Family history and inherited conditions  having a close relative with bowel cancer puts you at much greater risk of developing the disease.
  • Related conditions  having certain bowel conditions can put you more at risk of getting bowel cancer

Read more about the causes of bowel cancer and preventing bowel cancer.

Bowel cancer screening

Currently, everyone between the ages of 60 and 69 is offered bowel cancer screening every two years, and the screening programme is currently being extended in England to those aged 70 to 75.

Screening is carried out by taking a small stool sample and testing it for the presence of blood (faecal occult blood test).

In addition, an extra screening test is being introduced over the next three years for all people at age 55. This test involves a camera examination of the lower bowel called a flexible sigmoidoscopy.

Screening plays an important part in the fight against bowel cancer because the earlier the cancer is diagnosed, the greater the chance it can be cured completely.

Read more about screening for bowel cancer and how bowel cancer is diagnosed.

Treatment and outlook

Bowel cancer can be treated using a combination of surgery, chemotherapyradiotherapy and, in some cases, biological therapy. As with most types of cancer, the chance of a complete cure depends on how far the cancer has advanced by the time it is diagnosed.

If bowel cancer is diagnosed in its earliest stages, the chance of surviving a further five years is 90%, and a complete cure is usually possible. However, bowel cancer diagnosed in its most advanced stage only has a five-year survival rate of 6% and a complete cure is unlikely.

Read more information about how bowel cancer is treated and living with bowel cancer.

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Bowel cancer

The initial symptoms of bowel cancer include blood in your stools (faeces), bleeding from your rectum or a change to your normal bowel habits.

Early bowel cancer may have no symptoms and some symptoms of later bowel cancer can also occur in people with less serious medical problems, such as haemorrhoids (piles).

See your doctor if you notice any of the symptoms below.

The initial symptoms of bowel cancer include:

  • blood in your stools (faeces) or bleeding from your rectum
  • a change to your normal bowel habits that persists for more than three weeks, such as diarrhoeaconstipation or passing stools more frequently than usual
  • abdominal pain 
  • unexplained weight loss

As bowel cancer progresses, it can sometimes cause bleeding inside the bowel. Eventually, this can lead to your body not having enough red blood cells. This is known as anaemia.

Symptoms of anaemia include:

  • fatigue
  • breathlessness

In some cases, bowel cancer can cause an obstruction in the bowel. Symptoms of a bowel obstruction include:

  • a feeling of bloating, usually around the belly button
  • abdominal pain
  • constipation
  • vomiting

When to seek medical advice

See your GP if you have any of the symptoms above. While the symptoms are unlikely to be the result of bowel cancer, these types of symptoms always need to be investigated further.

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Bowel cancer

Cancer occurs when the cells in a certain area of your body divide and multiply too rapidly. This produces a lump of tissue known as a tumour.

Cancer occurs when the cells in a certain area of your body divide and multiply too rapidly. This produces a lump of tissue known as a tumour.

Most cases of bowel cancer first develop inside clumps of cells on the inner lining of the bowel. These clumps are known as polyps. However, if you develop polyps, it does not necessarily mean you will get bowel cancer.

Exactly what causes cancer to develop inside the bowel is still unknown. However, research has shown several factors may make you more likely to develop it.

Family history

There is evidence that bowel cancer can run in families. Around 20% of people who develop bowel cancer have a close relative (mother, father, brother or sister) or a second-degree relative (grandparent, uncle or aunt) who have also had bowel cancer.

It is estimated that if you have one close relative with a history of bowel cancer, your risk of getting bowel cancer is doubled. If you have two close relatives with a history of bowel cancer, your risk increases four-fold.

Diet

A large body of evidence suggests a diet high in red and processed meat can increase your risk of developing bowel cancer. For this reason, the Department of Health advises people who eat more than 90 grams (cooked weight) of red and processed meat a day to cut down to 70 grams. Read more information about red meat and bowel cancer risk.

There is also good evidence that a diet high in fibre and low in saturated fat could help reduce your bowel cancer risk. Cancer experts think this is because this type of diet encourages regular bowel movements.

Read more about eating good food and a healthy diet.

Smoking

People who smoke cigarettes are 25% more likely to develop bowel cancer, other types of cancer and heart disease than people who do not smoke.

Read more about quitting smoking or find local stop-smoking clinics.

Alcohol

A major study, called the EPIC study, showed alcohol was associated with bowel cancer risk. Even small amounts of alcohol can put you at higher risk of getting bowel cancer. The EPIC study found that for every two units of alcohol a person drinks each day, their risk of bowel cancer goes up by 8%.

Read about drinking and alcohol for more information and tips on cutting down.

Obesity

Obesity is linked to an increased risk of bowel cancer. Obese men are 50% more likely to develop bowel cancer than people with a healthy weight. Morbidly obese men, who have a body mass index (BMI) of over 40, are twice as likely to develop bowel cancer.

Obese women have a small increased risk of developing the condition, and morbidly obese women are 50% more likely to develop bowel cancer than women with a healthy weight.

Read more about losing weight.

Inactivity

People who are physically inactive have a higher risk of developing bowel cancer. You can help reduce your risk of bowel and other cancers by being physically active every day. Your risk could be cut by up to one-fifth if you do an hour of vigorous exercise every day or two hours of moderate exercise (such as vacuum cleaning or brisk walking).

Read more about health and fitness.

Digestive disorders

Some conditions may put you at a higher risk of developing bowel cancer. People with Crohn’s disease are 2-3 times more likely to develop bowel cancer. The risk of developing bowel cancer is much higher in people with ulcerative colitis, and as many as 1 in 20 of these people will go on to develop it.

Genetic conditions

There are two rare inherited conditions that can cause bowel cancer. They are:

  • familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP)
  • hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC), also known as Lynch syndrome

FAP affects 1 in 10,000 people. The condition triggers the growth of non-cancerous polyps inside the bowel. Although the polyps are non-cancerous, there is a high risk that, over time, at least one will turn cancerous. Almost all people with FAP will have bowel cancer by the time they are 50 years of age.

People with FAP have such a high risk of getting bowel cancer, they are often advised by their doctor to have their large bowel removed by surgery before they reach the age of 25. Families affected can find support and advice from the FAP registry at St Mark’s Hospital, London.

HNPCC is a type of bowel cancer caused by a mutated gene. An estimated 2-5% of all cases of bowel cancer are due to HNPCC. Around 90% of men and 70% of women with the HNPCC mutation will develop bowel cancer by the time they are 70 years of age.

As with FAP, removing the bowel as a precautionary measure is usually recommended in people with HNPCC.

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Bowel cancer

When you first see your GP they will ask about your symptoms and whether you have a family history of bowel cancer.

When you first see your GP they will ask about your symptoms and whether you have a family history of bowel cancer.

They will then carry out a physical examination known as a digital rectal examination (DRE). A DRE involves your GP gently placing a finger into your anus, and then up into your rectum.

A DRE is a useful way of checking whether there is a noticeable lump inside your rectum. The test is not usually painful, but some people may find it a little embarrassing.

If your symptoms suggest you may have bowel cancer, or the diagnosis is uncertain, you will be referred to your local hospital for further examination to rule out bowel cancer or confirm a diagnosis. 

Confirming a diagnosis

Three main tests can be used to help confirm a diagnosis of bowel cancer - a colonoscopy, a sigmoidoscopy and computerised tomography (CT) colonography.

These tests are described in more detail below.

Colonoscopy

For most people, a colonoscopy is the main test carried out to diagnose bowel cancer.

This is an examination of your entire large bowel using a colonoscope. A colonoscope is a long, flexible tube attached to a small camera and light that is inserted into your rectum and up into your bowel.

Your bowel needs to be empty when a colonoscopy is performed, so you will be advised to eat a special diet to eat for a few days beforehand and take a laxative (medication to help empty your bowel) on the morning of the examination.

You will be given a sedative to help you relax during the test, after which the doctor will insert the colonoscope into your rectum and move it along the length of your large bowel. This is not usually painful, but can feel uncomfortable.

The camera relays images to a monitor, which allows the doctor to check for any abnormal areas within the rectum or bowel that could be the result of cancer.

The colonoscope can also be used to remove small samples of suspected cancerous tissue so they can be tested in the lab. This is known as a biopsy.

A colonoscopy usually takes about one hour to complete, and most people can go home once they have recovered from the effects of the sedative.

After the procedure, you will probably feel drowsy for a while, so arrange for someone to accompany you home

Sigmoidoscopy

A sigmoidoscopy is an examination of your rectum and some of your large bowel.

It involves using a device called a sigmoidoscope, which is a similar to a colonoscope but is shorter in length.

A sigmoidoscope can't see as far along the bowel as a colonoscope, which is why a colonoscopy is generally the preferred test for diagnosing bowel cancer unless there is a clear reason why a sigmoidoscopy would be more suitable.

As with a colonoscopy, a sigmoidoscope is inserted into your rectum and then up into your bowel. It relays images to a monitor and can also be used to take biopsies.

Your lower bowel will need to be empty when a sigmoidoscopy is performed, so you may be given laxatives to take the day before or day of the test.

A sigmoidoscopy is not usually painful, but can feel uncomfortable. Most people go home after the examination has been completed.

CT colonography

A CT colonography, also known as a 'virtual colonoscopy', involves using a computerised tomography (CT) scanner to produce three- dimensional images of the large bowel and rectum.

During the procedure, gas is used to inflate the bowel using a thin, flexible tube placed in your rectum. CT scans are then taken from a number of different angles.

As with a colonoscopy and sigmoidoscopy, you may need to have a special diet for a few days and take a laxative before the test to ensure your bowels are empty when the test is carried out.

This test can help identify potentially cancerous areas in people who are not suitable for a colonoscopy due to other medical reasons. For example, a CT colonography may be recommended if you have recently had bowel polyps removed.

A CT colonography is a less invasive test than a colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy, but you may still need to have one of these tests at a later stage so any abnormal areas can be removed or biopsied.

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Further tests

If a diagnosis of bowel cancer is confirmed, further testing is usually carried out to check if the cancer has spread from the bowel to other parts of the body and help decide on the most effective treatment for you.

These tests can include:

  • a CT scan or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan to provide a detailed image of your bowel and other organs 
  • ultrasound scans to check whether the cancerous areas can be easily removed with surgery
  • chest X-rays to assess the state of your heart and lungs
  • blood tests to detect a special protein, known as a tumour marker, released by the cancerous cells in some cases of bowel cancer 

Staging and grading

Once the above examinations and tests have been completed, it should be possible to determine the stage and grade of your cancer. Staging refers to how far your cancer has advanced. Grading relates to how aggressive and likely to spread your cancer is.

A number of different staging systems are used by doctors. A simplified version of one of the common systems used is outlined below.

  • Stage 1 - the cancer is still contained within the lining of the bowel or rectum
  • Stage 2 - the cancer has spread into the layer of muscle surrounding the bowel
  • Stage 3 - the cancer has spread into nearby lymph nodes
  • Stage 4 - the cancer has spread into another part of the body, such as the liver

There are three grades of bowel cancer:

  • Grade 1 is a cancer that grows slowly and has a low chance of spreading beyond the bowel
  • Grade 2 is a cancer that grows moderately and has a medium chance of spreading beyond the bowel
  • Grade 3 is a cancer that grows rapidly and has a high chance of spreading beyond the bowel

If you are not sure what stage or grade of cancer you have, ask your doctor.

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Bowel cancer

If the cancer is at a very early stage, it may be possible to remove just a small piece of the lining of the colon wall. This is known as local excision.

Surgery - colon cancer

If the cancer is at a very early stage, it may be possible to remove just a small piece of the lining of the colon wall. This is known as local excision.

If the cancer spread into muscles surrounding the colon, it will usually be necessary to remove an entire section of your colon. Removing some of the colon is known as a colectomy.

Depending on the location of the cancer, possible surgical procedures include:

  • left-hemi colectomy  where the left half of your colon is removed
  • transverse colectomy  where the middle section of your colon is removed
  • right-hemi colectomy  where the right half of your colon is removed
  • sigmoid colectomy  where the lower section of your colon is removed

There are two ways a colectomy can be performed:

  • In an open colectomy, the surgeon makes a large incision in your abdomen and removes a section of your colon.
  • A laparoscopic colectomy is a type of ‘keyhole surgery’, where the surgeon makes a number of small incisions in your abdomen and uses special instruments guided by a camera to remove a section of colon.

Both techniques are thought equally effective in removing cancer and have similar risks of complications. Laparoscopic colectomies have the advantage of a faster recovery time and less post-operative pain.

Laparoscopic colectomies should now be available in all hospitals carrying out bowel cancer surgery, although not all surgeons perform this type of surgery. If you are considering having your bowel cancer surgery done using keyhole surgery, discuss this with your surgeon.

During surgery, nearby lymph nodes may also be removed. It is usual to join the ends of the bowel together after bowel cancer surgery, but very occasionally this is not possible and a stoma is needed. 

Enhanced recovery programmes

Enhanced recovery surgical programmes should be used for most bowel cancer patients. These programmes differ from traditional surgery by:

  • ensuring patients are in the best possible physical condition before surgery
  • minimising the trauma patients go through during surgery - for example, minimally invasive surgery when possible and better pain control
  • ensuring patients experience the best possible rehabilitation after surgery

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Stoma surgery

In some cases, the surgeon may decide the colon needs to heal before it can be reattached, or that too much of the colon has been removed to make reattachment possible.

In this case, it will be necessary to find a way of removing waste materials from your body without stools passing through your anus. This is done using stoma surgery.

Stoma surgery involves the surgeon making a small hole in your abdomen, which is known as a stoma. There are two ways that stoma surgery can be carried out.

  • An ileostomy is where a stoma is made in the right-hand side of your abdomen. Your small intestine is separated from your colon and connected to the stoma, and the rest of the colon is sealed. You will need to wear a pouch connected to the stoma to collect waste material.
  • A colostomy is where a stoma is made in your lower abdomen and a section of the colon is removed and connected to the stoma. As with an ileostomy, you will need to wear a pouch to collect waste material.

In most cases, the stoma will be temporary and can be removed once your colon has recovered from the effects of the surgery. This will usually take at least nine weeks. Specialist stoma nurses are available to advise on the best site for a stoma, and about the best sort of pouch to cover the stoma and collect the waste material.

Before you have a colectomy, your care team will tell you whether they think stoma surgery will be necessary and the likelihood that you will need to have a temporary or permanent ileostomy or colostomy.

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Surgery - rectal cancer

Two common surgical procedures can be used to treat rectal cancers:

  • low anterior resection
  • abdominoperineal resection

Low anterior resection

Low anterior resection is a procedure used to treat cases where the cancer is in the upper section of your rectum. The surgeon will make an incision in your abdomen and remove the upper section of your rectum, as well as some surrounding tissue to make sure any lymph glands containing cancer cells are also removed. They will then attach your colon to the lowest part of your rectum or upper part of the anal canal. Sometimes, they turn the end of the colon into an internal pouch to replace the rectum. You will probably require a temporary stoma to give the join-up time to heal.

Abdominoperineal resection

Abdominoperineal resection is used to treat cases where the cancer is in the lowest section of your rectum. In this case, it will be necessary to remove the whole of your rectum and surrounding muscles to reduce the risk of the cancer regrowing in the same area. This involves removing the anus and its sphincter muscles too, so there is no option except to have a permanent stoma after the operation. Bowel cancer surgeons always do their best to avoid giving people permanent stomas wherever possible.

Side effects of surgery

Bowel cancer operations carry the same risks as other major operations, including the risks of bleeding, infection, developing blood clots or heart or breathing problems. 

One risk is that the join-up in the bowel may not heal properly and may leak inside your abdomen. This is usually only a risk in the first few days after the operation. 

Another risk is for patients having rectal cancer surgery. The nerves controlling passing urine and sexual function are very close to the rectum, and sometimes an operation to remove a rectal cancer can damage these nerves. 

After bowel cancer surgery, the bowel is shorter than it used to be. This results in some patients needing to go to the toilet to open their bowels more often than before. This usually settles down within three to six months of the operation.

Radiotherapy

There are two main ways that radiotherapy can be used to treat bowel cancer. It can be:

  • given before surgery, in cases of rectal cancer
  • used to control symptoms and slow the spread of cancer, in cases of advanced bowel cancer (called palliative radiotherapy)

Radiotherapy given before surgery for rectal cancer can be performed in two ways:

  • external radiotherapy, where a machine is used to beam high-energy waves at your rectum to kill cancerous cells
  • internal radiotherapy (also known as brachytherapy), where a radioactive tube is inserted into your anus and placed next to the tumour to shrink it

External radiotherapy is usually given daily, five days a week, with a break at the weekend. Depending on the size of your tumour, you may need one to five weeks of treatment. Each session of radiotherapy is short and will only last for 10-15 minutes.

Internal radiotherapy can usually be performed in one session before surgery is carried out a few weeks later.

Palliative radiotherapy is usually given in short, daily sessions, with a course ranging from 2-3 days to 10 days.

Short-term side effects of radiotherapy include:

  • nausea
  • fatigue
  • diarrhoea
  • burning and irritation of the skin around the rectum and pelvis (this looks and feels like sunburn)
  • a frequent need to urinate
  • a burning sensation when passing urine

These side effects should pass once the course of radiotherapy has finished. Tell your care team if the side effects of treatment become particularly troublesome. Additional treatments are often available to help you cope better with the side effects.

Long-term side effects of radiotherapy include:

  • a more frequent need to pass urine or stools
  • blood in your urine and stools
  • infertility
  • impotence in men

If you want to have children, it may be possible to store a sample of your sperm or eggs before treatment begins so they can be used in fertility treatments in the future.

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Chemotherapy

There are three ways chemotherapy can be used to treat bowel cancer. It can be:

  • given before surgery for rectal cancer in combination with radiotherapy
  • given after surgery to prevent the return of cancer
  • given to slow the spread of advanced bowel cancer and help control symptoms (palliative chemotherapy)

Chemotherapy for bowel cancer usually involves taking a combination of medications that kill cancer cells. They can be given as a tablet (oral chemotherapy), through a drip in your arm or chest (intravenous chemotherapy), or as a combination of both.

Depending on the stage and grade of your cancer, a single session of intravenous chemotherapy can last from several hours to several days.

Most people have regular daily sessions of chemotherapy over the course of one or two weeks before having a break from treatment for another week.

A course of chemotherapy can last up to six months depending on how well you respond to the treatment.

Side effects of chemotherapy include:

  • fatigue
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • diarrhoea
  • mouth ulcers
  • hair loss
  • redness and soreness on the palms of your hands and the soles of your feet
  • a sensation of numbness, tingling or burning in your hands, feet and neck

These side effects should gradually pass once your treatment has finished. It usually takes three to six months for your hair to grow back.

Chemotherapy can also weaken your immune system, making you more vulnerable to infection. Inform your care team or GP as soon as possible if you experience possible signs of an infection, including:

  • a high temperature (fever) of 38ºC (100.4ºF) or above
  • a sudden feeling of being generally unwell

Medications used in chemotherapy can cause temporary damage to men's sperm and women's eggs. This means that for women who become pregnant or for men who father a child, there is a risk to the unborn baby’s health. Therefore, it is recommended you use a reliable method of contraception while having chemotherapy treatment and for a further year after your treatment has finished.

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Biological treatments

Biological treatments, including cetuximab, bevacizumab and panitumumab, are a newer type of medication known as monoclonal antibodies. Monoclonal antibodies are antibodies that have been genetically engineered in a laboratory. They target special proteins found on the surface of cancer cells, known as epidermal growth factor receptors (EGFR). As EGFRs help the cancer to grow, by targeting these proteins, biological treatments can help prevent the cancer spreading.

Biological treatments are usually used in combination with chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

These treatments are not available to everyone with bowel cancer. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) has determined specific criteria which need to be met before they can be prescribed.

Cetuximab is only available on the NHS when:

  • bowel cancer has spread to the liver and cannot be removed using surgery
  • surgery to remove the cancer in the colon or rectum has been carried out or is possible
  • a person is fit enough to undergo surgery to remove the cancer from the liver if this becomes possible after treatment with cetuximab

Bevacizumab and panitumumab are not available on the NHS. All these medications are available privately but are very expensive. The medication is usually given in combination with chemotherapy.

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Bowel cancer

Being diagnosed with bowel cancer is a tough challenge for most people. There are several ways to find support to help you cope.

Talk to others

Your GP or nurse may be able to reassure you if you have questions, or you may find it helpful to talk to a trained counsellor, psychologist or specialist telephone helpline operator. Your GP surgery will have information on these. Some people find it helpful to talk to others with bowel cancer at a local support group or through an internet chat room.

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Emotional effects

Having cancer can cause a range of emotions. These may include shock, anxiety, relief, sadness and depression. Different people deal with serious problems in different ways. It is hard to predict how knowing you have cancer will affect you. However, you and your loved ones may find it helpful to know about the feelings that people diagnosed with cancer have reported.

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Recovering from colon or rectal surgery

Surgeons and anaesthetists have found that using an “enhanced recovery programme” after bowel cancer surgery helps patients recover more quickly.

Most hospitals now use this programme. It involves giving you more information before the operation about what to expect, avoiding giving you strong laxatives to clean the bowel before surgery, and in some cases giving you a sugary drink two hours before the operation to give you energy. 

During and after the operation, the anaesthetist controls the amount of IV fluid you need very carefully, and after the operation you will be given painkillers that allow you to get up and out of bed by the next day.

Most people will be able to eat a light diet the day after their operation.

To reduce the risk of deep vein thrombosis (blood clots in the legs), you may be given special compression stockings that help prevent blood clots, or a regular injection with heparin until you are fully mobile.

A nurse or physiotherapist will help you get out of bed and regain your strength so you can go home again within a few days.

With the enhanced recovery programme, most people are well enough to go home within five to six days of their operation. The timing depends on when you and the doctors and nurses looking after you agree you are well enough to go home.

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Coping with a colostomy

If you need a colostomy, you may feel worried about how you look and how others will react to you. Information and advice about living with a stoma (including stoma care, stoma products and ‘stoma-friendly’ diets) is available via the ileostomy and colostomy topics.

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Diet after bowel surgery

If you have had part of your colon removed, it is likely that your stools (faeces) will be looser because one of the functions of the colon is to absorb water from the stools. This may mean that you experience repeated episodes of diarrhoea.

You should inform your care team if diarrhoea becomes a problem because medication is available to help control symptoms.

You may find some foods upset your bowels, particularly during the first few months after your operation.

Different foods can upset different people, but food and drink that is commonly known to cause problems include:

  • rich and fatty food
  • fruit and vegetables that are high in fibre, such as beans, cabbages, apples and bananas
  • fizzy drinks, such as cola and beer

You may find it useful to keep a food diary to record the effects of different foods on your bowel.

If you find that you are having continual problems with your bowels as a result of your diet, and/or you are finding it difficult to maintain a healthy diet, you should contact your care team. You may need to be referred to a dietitian for further advice.

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Sex and bowel cancer

Having cancer and its treatment may affect how you feel about relationships and sex. Although most people are able to enjoy a normal sex life after bowel cancer treatment, if you have had a colostomy you may feel self-conscious or uncomfortable.

Talking about how you feel with your partner may help you both to support each other. Or you may feel you’d like to talk to someone else about your feelings. Your doctor or nurse will be able to help.

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Financial concerns

A diagnosis of cancer can cause money problems because you are unable to work or someone you are close to has to stop working to look after you. There is financial support available for carers and for you if you have to stay off work for a while or have to stop work because of your sickness. 

Free prescriptions

People being treated for cancer are entitled to apply for an exemption certificate giving free prescriptions for all medication, including that which treats unrelated conditions.

The certificate is valid for five years and you can apply for a certificate by speaking to your GP or cancer specialist.

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Dealing with dying

If you are told there is nothing more that can be done to treat your bowel cancer, your GP will still provide you with support and pain relief. This is called palliative care. Support is also available for your family and friends.

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Bowel cancer

There are several ways that you can help to reduce your risk of developing bowel cancer.

There are several ways to reduce your risk of developing bowel cancer.

Diet

Research suggests a low-fat, high-fibre diet that includes plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables (at least five portions a day) and wholegrains can help reduce your risk of getting bowel cancer. It can also reduce your risk of developing other types of cancer and heart disease.

It is recommended you do not eat a lot of processed meat and red meat. The Department of Health advises people who eat more than 90 grams (cooked weight) of red and processed meat a day to cut down to 70 grams. Read more information about red meat and bowel cancer risk.

Read more information about eating good food and a healthy diet.

Exercise

There is strong evidence to suggest regular exercise can lower the risk of developing bowel and other cancers.

It is recommended adults exercise for at least 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (i.e. cycling or fast walking) every week.

Read more information about health and fitness.

Healthy weight

Try to maintain a healthy weight. Changes to your diet and an increase in physical activities will help keep your weight under control. Find out if you are a healthy weight with the Healthy weight calculator.

Read more information about losing weight.

Smoking

If you smoke, giving up will reduce your risk of developing bowel and other cancers.

The free NHS Smoking Helpline can offer advice and encouragement to help you quit smoking. Call 0300 123 1044 or visit the NHS Smokefree website.

Your GP or pharmacist can also provide help, support and advice if you want to give up smoking.

Read more information about quitting smoking.

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Bowel cancer

Bowel cancer can be present for a long time before any symptoms appear. If bowel cancer is detected before symptoms appear, it is easier to treat.

Bowel cancer can be present for a long time before any symptoms appear. If bowel cancer is detected before symptoms appear, it is easier to treat and there is a better chance of surviving the disease.

The NHS Bowel Cancer Screening Programme in England started in July 2006. Men and women aged 60-69 registered with a GP will automatically be sent an invitation for screening through the post.

The screening programme is being extended in England to those aged 70 to 75. Screening centres in England are rolling out the extension once their two-year screening invites have completed.

By July 2012, 38 of the 58 local screening centres had started inviting the extended population. People over 70 can also request a screening kit by calling the freephone helpline 0800 707 6060.

Screening consists of a home testing kit, called an FOBt (faecal occult blood test) kit. The kit arrives through the post when screening is due. The kit is used to collect tiny stool samples on a special card. The card is then sealed in a special hygienic freepost envelope and sent to a laboratory where it will be checked for traces of blood, which may indicate a problem.

Results

Results are received in writing within two weeks of sending in the test kit. There are three types of result:

  • Normal: no blood was found in the samples. Screening will be offered again in two years’ time.
  • Unclear: there were possible traces of blood that could be caused by factors other than cancer, such as haemorrhoids (piles) or stomach ulcers. If you have an unclear result, you will be asked to repeat the test kit up to twice more.
  • Abnormal: blood was definitely found in the samples. Again, this could be from piles or bowel polyps (small growths not usually cancerous). If you have an abnormal result, you will be offered an appointment with a specialist nurse to discuss having an examination of the bowel, called a colonoscopy.

Colonoscopy

A colonoscopy is an investigation of the lining of the large bowel (colon). A thin flexible tube with a tiny camera on the end is passed into your bottom and guided around the bowel. Only around 2 in every 100 people completing the FOBt kit will have an abnormal result and will be offered a colonoscopy. Of those who have a colonoscopy, only about one in 10 will have cancer.

New screening test

As well as the FOBt described above, an additional screening test is being rolled out by 2016. This involves inviting people at age 55 to have a one-off flexible sigmoidoscopy test to examine the lower bowel with a camera.

If the flexible sigmoidoscopy shows polyps, the person will then be offered a full colonoscopy (see above). Both FOBt and flexible sigmoidoscopy screening tests have been shown to reduce the risk of dying of bowel cancer.

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Bowel cancer

Anne Messenger, 65, from London, was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2005. After keyhole surgery she’s now in the clear and focusing her energies on helping

Anne Messenger, 65, from London was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2005. After keyhole surgery, she is now in the clear and focused on helping others.

“For years I’d suffered from indigestion and I thought I had irritable bowel syndrome, but when I noticed I had passed a little bit of blood, I went to the doctor. I was referred to St George's Hospital for tests and, following a stool sample, I was told I had a peptic ulcer. However, when I had a routine colonoscopy, doctors discovered that it was bowel cancer.

"It turned out that the initial bleeding had nothing to do with the cancer, so I’m fortunate that whatever caused it put me in a position where the doctors could pick up on the cancer. 

"Not long after my diagnosis, I was given a date for an operation to remove the cancer. I had a full body scan and the consultant told me that everything looked straightforward. They would perform keyhole surgery and I wouldn’t need a colostomy.

"Leading up to the surgery, I had another colonoscopy, in which purple dye was used to pinpoint where doctors needed to operate. I never thought I’d have any problems, as I was naturally upbeat.

"The operation went well and they removed an 8cm (3 inch) growth. Doctors told me there was a 20% chance of recurrence, which would be halved if I had a course of chemotherapy. I began chemotherapy two weeks after my operation, but I had a bad reaction to it and had to stop. 

"For the two years after my operation, I had a check-up every three months. I now have one every six months. I had my last cigarette on the morning of my operation and I have become more aware of what I eat. My diet includes lots more fruit and veg.

"My advice is to try to take a bit of control and understand what is happening to you. Pay attention and always make a note of things to ask the consultant. You don’t want to fuss, but you also don’t want the consultant to say, ‘You should have come to see me about this two months ago.' People can find doctors intimidating, but they’re nice to everyone, so if something is worrying you, just ask. I used to call up or write to my doctor if I had any worries, and I'd take my husband with me if I was going to an appointment where I needed to take in information or make decisions about my treatment.

"Also, try to carry on as if you’re going to be fine. I did, and because of that, my family coped well.

"I am now on the cancer committee at St George's. I think it's best to face cancer head on, and people who survive have a better view of life than most."

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Bowel cancer

Lester tells his story of being diagnosed with bowel cancer

Lester and his wife Carolyn talk about his experience of bowel cancer, and offer their advice to others.

Content Supplied by NHS Choices

Bowel cancer

Linda's account of being diagnosed with bowel cancer

Linda recalls the day she first noticed her bowel cancer warning symptoms, and regrets not seeing her doctor straight away.

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