About bowel cancer
Bowel cancer is cancer in any part of the large bowel (colon or rectum). It is sometimes known as colorectal cancer and might also be called colon cancer or rectal cancer, depending on where in the bowel it starts.
Bowel cancer grows from the inner lining of the bowel (mucosa). It usually develops from small growths on the bowel wall called polyps. Most polyps are harmless (benign), but some polyps develop into cancer over time. Polyps can be removed during a colonoscopy to prevent them becoming cancerous.
If untreated, bowel cancer can grow into the deeper layers of the bowel wall. It can spread from there to the lymph nodes. If the cancer advances further, it can spread to other organs, such as the liver or lungs.
Learn more about:
- Less common types of cancer
- Who gets bowel cancer?
- What causes bowel cancer?
- Can bowel cancer run in families?
- The bowel
Less common types of cancer
About 9 out of 10 bowel cancers are adenocarcinomas, which start in the glandular tissue lining the bowel. Rarely, other less common types of cancer can also affect the bowel. These include lymphomas, squamous cell carcinomas, neuroendocrine tumours and gastrointestinal stromal tumours. These types of cancer aren’t discussed here and treatment may be different. Call Cancer Council 13 11 20 for more information.
Cancer can also start in the small bowel (called small bowel cancer or small intestine cancer), but this is rare.
Who gets bowel cancer?
Bowel cancer is the third most common cancer in Australia. Each year, about 15,500 Australians are diagnosed with bowel cancer. It is most common in people over 50, but it can occur at any age.
The exact cause of bowel cancer is not known. Research shows that people with certain risk factors are more likely to develop bowel cancer.
Risk factors for bowel cancer include:
- older age – bowel cancer is most commonly diagnosed in people over 50, and the risk increases with age
- polyps – having a large number of polyps in the bowel
- bowel diseases – people who have an inflammatory bowel disease, such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, have a significantly increased risk, particularly if they have had the disease for more than eight years
- lifestyle factors – being overweight, having a diet high in red meat or processed meats such as salami or ham, drinking alcohol, or smoking
- strong family history – a small number of bowel cancers run in families
- other diseases – people who have had bowel cancer once are more likely to develop a second bowel cancer; some people who have had ovarian or endometrial (uterine) cancer may have an increased risk of bowel cancer
- rare genetic disorders – a small number of bowel cancers are associated with an inherited gene.
Some lifestyle habits reduce your risk of developing bowel cancer, including being physically active; maintaining a healthy weight; cutting out processed meat; cutting down on red meat; drinking less alcohol; not smoking; and eating wholegrains, dietary fibre and dairy foods.
Ask your doctor whether taking aspirin regularly might benefit you. It may reduce the risk of bowel cancer for some people.
Sometimes bowel cancer runs in families. The risk of developing bowel cancer may be higher if one or more of your close family members (such as a parent or sibling) has had bowel cancer. The risk is higher if they were diagnosed before the age of 55, or if two or more close relatives on the same side of your family have had bowel cancer. A family history of other cancers, such as endometrial (uterine) cancer, may also increase your bowel cancer risk.
Some people have an inherited faulty gene that increases their risk of developing bowel cancer. These faulty genes cause a small number (about 5–6%) of bowel cancers.
There are two main genetic conditions that occur in some families:
- Familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) – This condition causes hundreds of polyps to form in the bowel. If these polyps are not removed, they may become cancerous.
- Lynch syndrome – This syndrome causes a fault in the gene that helps the cell’s DNA repair itself. People with Lynch syndrome have a slightly increased risk of developing bowel cancer and other cancers such as uterine, kidney, bladder and ovarian.
If you are worried about your family history, talk to your doctor about having regular check-ups or ask for a referral to a family cancer clinic. To find out more, call Cancer Council 13 11 20.
For an overview of what to expect at every stage of your cancer care, visit Bowel cancer: Guides to Best Cancer Care. This is a short guide to what is recommended, from diagnosis to treatment and beyond.
The bowel is part of the lower gastrointestinal tract (GI), which is part of the digestive system. The digestive system starts at the mouth and ends at the anus. It helps the body break down food and turn it into energy. It also gets rid of the parts of food the body does not use.
The small bowel (small intestine)
This is a long tube (4–6 m), which absorbs nutrients from food. The small bowel is longer and narrower than the large bowel. It has three parts:
- duodenum – the top section; receives broken-down food from the stomach
- jejunum – the middle section
- ileum – the lower and longest section; moves waste into the large bowel.
The large bowel (large intestine)
This tube is about 1.5 m long. It absorbs water and salts, and turns what is left over into solid waste (known as faeces, stools or poo when it leaves the body). The large bowel has three parts:
- caecum – looks like a pouch; it receives waste from the small bowel
- colon – the main working area of the large bowel, the colon makes up most of the large bowel’s length and has four parts: ascending colon, transverse colon, descending colon and sigmoid colon; the term colon is often used to refer to all three parts of the large bowel
- rectum – the last 15–20 cm of the large bowel.
This is the opening at the end of the bowel. During a bowel movement, the anal muscles relax to release faeces.
For more on this, see Anal cancer.
The lower digestive system
A/Prof David A Clark, Colorectal Surgeon, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, and The University of Queensland, QLD, and The University of Sydney, NSW; A/Prof Siddhartha Baxi, Radiation Oncologist and Medical Director, GenesisCare Gold Coast, QLD; Dr Hooi Ee, Specialist Gastroenterologist and Head, Department of Gastroenterology, Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, WA; Annie Harvey, Consumer; A/Prof Louise Nott, Medical Oncologist, Icon Cancer Centre, Hobart, TAS; Caley Schnaid, Accredited Practising Dietitian, GenesisCare, St Leonards and Frenchs Forest, NSW; Chris Sibthorpe, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Queensland; Dr Alina Stoita, Gastroenterologist and Hepatologist, St Vincent’s Hospital Sydney, NSW; Catherine Trevaskis, Gastrointestinal Cancer Specialist Nurse, Canberra Hospital, ACT; Richard Vallance, Consumer.
View the Cancer Council NSW editorial policy.
Coping with cancer?
Speak to a health professional or to someone who has been there, or find a support group or forum
Need legal and financial assistance?
Pro bono services, financial and legal assistance, and no interest loans
Looking for transport, accommodation or home help?
Practical advice and support during and after treatment