Clinical Oncologist Katherine Aitkens explains bowel cancer, giving an overview of bowel cancer symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment.
The bowel is part of the digestive system and is divided into the small bowel and large bowel. The large bowel is made up of the colon, rectum and anus. The term bowel cancer is normally used to talk about:
The term bowel cancer can also be used when talking about other cancers, including:
If you are diagnosed with bowel cancer, it means you have one of the specific cancers listed above. If you are not sure which type, ask your GP, cancer doctor or specialist nurse for more information.
What is colorectal cancer?
The term colorectal cancer can also be used when talking about colon cancer and rectal cancer.
Some people may start by seeing their GP because they have symptoms.
Find out more about symptoms for different types of bowel cancer:
- Colorectal cancer (colon or rectal cancer) symptoms
- Anal cancer symptoms
- Small bowel cancer symptoms
- Anorectal melanoma.
If you have any symptoms or notice anything that is unusual for you, you should see your GP straight away.
Doctors do not know the exact causes of bowel cancer. But there are risk factors that can increase your chance of developing it.
Different risk factors may increase the chance of being diagnosed with bowel cancer. Find out more about the causes and risk factors for different types of bowel cancer:
If you have symptoms, you will usually begin by seeing your GP, who will examine you. If they think that your symptoms could be caused by cancer, they will refer you to a specialist doctor.
The tests you are given will depend on the type of bowel cancer you may have. Tests may include:
There are other ways you may be diagnosed:
- Having NHS Bowel Screening
Bowel cancer screening is a way of finding bowel cancer at an early stage before it causes symptoms. If you have a family history of bowel cancer, you may need to have bowel screening at an earlier age.
- Going to hospital with a problem, such as bowel obstruction
This is when part of the bowel becomes blocked. It may cause symptoms such as tummy pain, nausea and vomiting, and constipation.
Booklets and resources
Staging and grading of bowel cancer
The results of your tests help your doctors find out more about the size and position of the cancer and whether it has spread. This is called staging.
A doctor decides the grade of the cancer by how the cancer cells look under the microscope. This gives an idea of how quickly the cancer might grow or spread.
Knowing the stage and grade helps your doctors plan the best treatment for you.
Find out more about the staging and grading for different types of bowel cancer:
A team of specialists will meet to discuss the best possible treatment for you. This is called a multidisciplinary team (MDT) for bowel cancer.
Your cancer doctor or specialist nurse will explain the different treatments and their side effects. They will also talk to you about things to consider when making treatment decisions.
The treatment you have will depend on which type of bowel cancer you have. It will also depend on your general health and preferences.
After your treatment has finished, you will have regular check-ups, tests and scans. These appointments are a good opportunity to talk to your doctor about any worries or problems you have.
We have more information about follow-up care after treatment.
You may get anxious between appointments. This is natural. It may help to get support from family, friends or a support organisation.
Macmillan is also here to support you. If you would like to talk, you can:
Well-being and recovery
Even if you already have a healthy lifestyle, you may choose to make some positive lifestyle changes after treatment.
Making small changes such as eating well and keeping active can improve your health and wellbeing and help your body recover.
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Below is a sample of the sources used in our bowel cancer information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at email@example.com
R Glynne-Jones, PJ Nilson, C Aschele et al. ESMO-ESSO-ESTRO Clinical practice guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow up for anal cancer. July 2014. European Society of Medical Oncology. Available from www.esmo.org/Guidelines/Gastrointestinal-Cancers/Anal-Cancer (accessed October 2019).
National Institute for Health and Excellence (NICE). Colorectal cancer: diagnosis and management clinical guidelines. Updated December 2014. Available from www.nice.org.uk/guidance/cg131 (accessed October 2019).
Association of Coloproctology of Great Britain & Ireland (ACPGBI). Volume 19. Issue S1. Guidelines for the management of cancer of the colon, rectum and anus. 2017. Available from www.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/toc/14631318/19/S1 (accessed October 2019).
BMJ. Best practice colorectal cancer. Updated 2018. Available from www.bestpractice.bmj.com/topics/en-gb/258 (accessed October 2019).
This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Chief Medical Editor, Professor Tim Iveson, Consultant Medical Oncologist.
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