Bowel cancer

Bowel cancer, more correctly termed colorectal cancer, is the third most common cancer in Britain. 10% of cases can be explained genetically; the rest probably have more to do with our lifestyle.

Colorectal simply refers to the lower end of the intestines, which is made up of the colon and the rectum. These parts of the intestines are responsible for absorbing water and nourishment from food and they store the waste products of what we eat before it leaves the body. Cancer can develop in either the colon or the rectum and can begin some time before it becomes obvious, as a polyp. Polyps are one cause of bleeding from the back passage (rectum) and while not all will develop into cancer they should be removed once found. Some people have a very strong family history of polyps and/or colorectal cancer. If anyone in your family has been diagnosed with this kind of cancer before the age of 45 you should speak to your doctor about the possibility of screening for the disease.

Risk factors
Age 50+ Anyone who has a tendency to develop polyps in the bowel Ulcerative colitis Poor diet - low in fibre/fresh vegetable and high in fat and meat Smokers Anyone with a family history of colorectal cancer Prevention

Lifestyle measures are extremely important in helpful in preventing this disease.

Increase the amount of vegetables, particularly those with red or yellow colour e.g. carrots, tomatoes, melons, apricots and other plant food in your diet. Try to eat unrefined starchy foods such as potatoes, wholegrain bread and cereals. One theory is that increasing the amount of fibre in your diet allows food to pass more quickly through the intestines, reducing the amount of time that possible toxins stay in the bowel. Cut down on red meat, particularly sausages, burgers and charred meats.

Drink more water to help the digestive processes.

Physical activity also helps to reduce your risk, not just of colorectal cancer but also heart disease and osteoporosis. It also helps you to keep your weight at a healthy level.

Donít smoke or drink alcohol to excess.


  • Persistent change in bowel habit, including diarrhoea/constipation, especially if combined with bleeding from the back passage.
  • Persistent abdominal pain
  • A lump in the abdomen
  • Unexplained blood in the stools (poo)
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Unexplained severe tiredness
  • Unexplained vomiting

See your doctor if you have any of these symptoms. Whilst bowel cancer is more common after the age of 50, it can occur in younger people.

Further information

WCRF Health Check

NHS Bowel Cancer Screening Programme

This article published on
01 August 2005

Next review date 8/1/2013



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Stomach and digestion

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