What is small bowel cancer?

The small bowel is part of the digestive system. Cancers in this area of the body are rare. Around 1,500 people in the UK are diagnosed with small bowel cancer each year.

We have more information about other types of bowel cancer including:

Types of small bowel cancer

There are different types of small bowel cancer. This information is mainly about the most common type called adenocarcinoma.

Symptoms of small bowel cancer

People with the following conditions may have a higher risk of developing small bowel cancer:

Like all cancers, small bowel cancer is not infectious and cannot be passed on to other people.

If you are worried, we have more information about the signs and symptoms of small bowel cancer.

Causes of small bowel cancer

We do not know what causes most small bowel cancers, but there is research being done to try to find out more.

Diagnosis of small bowel cancer

You may start by seeing your GP about symptoms such as:

  • pain
  • weight loss
  • tiredness.

Your GP will examine you, arrange some blood tests or x-rays and refer you to a specialist at the hospital if necessary.

Some people are admitted to hospital with more severe symptoms. These may be caused by a blockage or a tear in the bowel.

At the hospital, a specialist doctor will examine you and may arrange the following tests:

  • Blood test

    You usually have a blood test to check for low red blood cells (anaemia) and to check liver and kidney function.

  • Stool sample

    A sample of your stool (poo) is tested for blood.

  • Upper endoscopy

    An upper endoscopy  looks at the inside of the upper end of your digestive system (the gullet, stomach and the top end of the small bowel). It may have different names depending on the area examined.

  • Capsule endoscopy

    A capsule endoscopy is used to take pictures of the whole of the inside of your digestive tract. You swallow a capsule that is about the size of a large pill. Inside the capsule there is a camera.

  • CT scan

    A CT scan uses x-rays to build a 3D picture of the inside of the body.

  • MRI scan

    An MRI scan uses magnetism to build up a detailed picture of areas of your body.

  • Other tests

    If it is difficult to get a clear picture of the small bowel, you may have an operation to check for signs of cancer.

We have more information about waiting for test results that can help during what can be a difficult time.

Stages of small bowel cancer

The stage of small bowel cancer describes its size and how far it has spread, based on your test results.

You and your doctors can then talk about the best treatment choices for you.

Treatment for small bowel cancer

A team of specialists will meet to discuss the best possible treatment for you. This is called a multidisciplinary team (MDT).

Your treatment plan may depend on a number of things, including:

  • your general health
  • the position and size of the cancer
  • whether it has spread to other areas of the body.

Your doctor will explain the different treatments and their side effects. They will also talk to you about the things you should consider when making treatment decisions.

Your treatment may depend on the type of small bowel cancer you have. This information is mainly about the most common type, called adenocarcinoma. Other types, such as lymphoma may be treated differently.

Surgery is the main treatment for cancer of the small bowel.

You may also have chemotherapy, either in combination with radiotherapy (called chemoradiation) or surgery, or on its own. Doctors are still researching how effective chemotherapy is at treating small bowel cancer, so it is not always used.

You may have some treatments as part of a clinical trial.


After small bowel cancer treatment

Follow-up care after treatment for small bowel cancer

The aim of follow-up care is to make sure everything is going well and to find out if you have any concerns. The appointments are usually every few months in the first year.

We have more information on follow-up care after treatment.

Sex life

Small bowel cancer and its treatment can sometimes affect your sex life. Your doctor or nurse can explain what to expect. There are often things that can help if you have problems.


Some cancer treatments can affect whether you can get pregnant or make someone pregnant. If you are worried about this, it is important to talk with your doctor before you start treatment.

Well-being and recovery

Even if you already have a healthy lifestyle, you may choose to make some positive changes after treatment. We have more information on leading a healthy lifestyle after treatment.

How we can help

Macmillan Grants

If you have cancer, you may be able to get a Macmillan Grant to help with the extra costs of cancer. Find out who can apply and how to access our grants.

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