Reducing your risk of bowel cancer

Bowel cancer is the second most common cancer affecting people in Australia. It is estimated that about 15,000 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer every year. About one in 21 men and one in 30 women will develop bowel cancer before the age of 75. It is most common in people over 50, but it can occur at any age.

The risk of developing bowel cancer increases with age. Other risk factors include a history of bowel polyps, and having ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease, particularly if you have had it for more than eight years.

A family history of bowel cancer can also increase your risk. Talk to your doctor if a close relative (e.g. a parent or sibling) has had bowel cancer, especially if they were younger than 55 when they were diagnosed. A small number of bowel cancers are caused by genetic conditions. Discuss your bowel cancer risk with your doctor.

Reducing your risk of bowel cancer

There is no way to guarantee that you won’t get bowel cancer, but the following measures can help reduce the risk:

  • Be physically active
  • Maintain a healthy body weight
  • Eat 5 serves of vegetables or legumes and 2 serves of fruit a day
  • Eat at least 4–6 serves of wholegrain, wholemeal and high-fibre cereals, breads and pasta each day
  • Don’t smoke
  • Limit your alcohol intake to no more than 2 standard drinks a day
  • Eat moderate amounts of lean red meat, and limit or avoid processed meats
  • Take part in the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program

Finding bowel cancer early

Bowel cancer can be treated successfully if it is detected early. However, most early-stage bowel cancers do not have symptoms, and fewer than 40% of bowel cancers are detected in their early stages. Don’t let embarrassment stop you from getting checked.

Symptoms of bowel cancer include:

  • blood in a bowel motion, in the toilet bowl or on toilet If you are over 50, check after each bowel motion
  • changes in bowel habits, such as constipation, diarrhoea, or smaller, more frequent bowel movements
  • a feeling that the bowel hasn’t completely emptied after a bowel movement
  • a feeling of fullness or bloating in the bowel or rectum
  • rectal or anal

Not everyone with these symptoms has bowel cancer. If you have symptoms, see your doctor, who may refer you for tests.

Bowel cancer screening

Bowel cancer testing kits, known as faecal occult blood tests or FOBTs, can find microscopic blood in a bowel motion that may indicate there is a problem. Many pharmacists sell testing kits, or your doctor can arrange for a kit to be sent to you. Many people receive a free kit as part of the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program.

Read more about bowel cancer and screening.

National Bowel Cancer Screening Program

Many people aged 50 and older who hold a Medicare or Department of Veterans’ Affairs card are automatically sent a free FOBT kit as part of the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program. The test involves using the kit to take samples from two separate bowel motions (faeces) and then mailing them to a pathology laboratory for testing.

If blood is found in your bowel motion (a positive result), you will be referred to your doctor for further tests to check for bowel cancer. A positive result does not necessarily mean you have bowel cancer.

For more information about the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program, call 1800 118 868 or visit cancerscreening.gov.au.

This information was last reviewed in December 2015
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