What is small bowel cancer?

Clinical Oncologist Katherine Aitkens explains bowel cancer, giving an overview of bowel cancer symptoms, diagnosis and treatment.


The small bowel or small intestine is part of the digestive system. Cancers in this area of the body are rare. Around 1,600 people in the UK are diagnosed with 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 adenocarcinoma of the small bowel. This is because it is the most common type.

For more information on other types of small bowel cancer, contact our cancer information nurses on the Macmillan Support Line.

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Symptoms of small bowel cancer

Small bowel cancer symptoms can be caused by things other than small bowel cancer. But you should always get any symptoms you are worried about checked by your doctor.

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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.

Some people with non-cancerous bowel conditions may have a higher risk of developing small bowel cancer. These conditions include:

  • Crohn’s disease
  • coeliac disease
  • Peutz-Jegher’s syndrome.

People who have had a cancer of the colon or rectum have an increased risk of developing small bowel cancer.

People also have a higher risk if they have:

  • Lynch syndrome, also called hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC)

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

Diagnosis of small bowel cancer

Small bowel cancer can be diagnosed in different ways. You may see your GP about symptoms such as pain, weight loss or tiredness caused by anaemia. They will examine you and arrange some blood tests or x-rays. Your GP can then refer you to a specialist at the hospital for more tests and treatment if necessary.

Other people are diagnosed with small bowel cancer after being admitted to hospital with more severe symptoms. These may include pain 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 tests

    You usually have blood tests to help with diagnosis and treatment.

  • Stool sample

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

  • Barium meal

    A barium meal is a special x-ray of the small bowel. It is sometimes called a barium x-ray or barium follow-through.

  • Endoscopy

    An endoscope is a thin, flexible tube used to look inside the body. The tube has a light and a camera at the end. It is passed into the body to help doctors see inside. This test has different names depending on the area examined. An upper endoscopy uses a tube passed through the mouth. A colonoscopy uses a tube passed through the back passage (rectum).

  • 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. Before an MRI of the small bowel you may have a special drink that helps the bowel expand. You may also have an injection of dye or muscle relaxant into a vein. These will help make the picture clearer.

  • Other tests

    If it is difficult to diagnose small bowel cancer with the endoscopies and scans, you may have an operation to look inside the bowel.

Waiting for test results can be a difficult time. It may take from a few days to a couple of weeks for the results of your tests to be ready. We have more information about waiting for test results that may help.

Stages of small bowel cancer

The stage of a cancer describes its size and whether it has spread. Knowing the stage of the cancer helps doctors decide on the best treatment for you.

We have more information about staging the most common type of small bowel cancer called adenocarcinoma.

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:

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

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.

Small bowel cancer treatments include:

  • Surgery

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

  • Chemotherapy

    Chemotherapy is the use of anti-cancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy cancer cells. Chemotherapy may sometimes be used to treat cancer of the small bowel, either in combination with surgery, or on its own.

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

After small bowel cancer treatment


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: 

Sex life

Bowel cancer and its treatment can affect your sex life. Changes may get better over time, but sometimes they are permanent. If you have any problems or are worried about this, talk to your doctor or nurse. They can explain what to expect and there are often things that can help.

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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About our information

  • Reviewers

    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.

    Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.

Date reviewed

Reviewed: 30 April 2020
Next review: 30 April 2023

This content is currently being reviewed. New information will be coming soon.

Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum
Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum

Our cancer information meets the PIF TICK quality mark.

This means it is easy to use, up-to-date and based on the latest evidence. Learn more about how we produce our information.