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.
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 – aving 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
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.
Treatment and outlook
Bowel cancer can be treated using a combination of surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy 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.