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Catch it early

Bowel cancer is the second most common cancer affecting Australian men and women. In fact, with around 17,000 cases expected to be diagnosed in 2018, we have one of the highest rates of bowel cancer in the world.

While it can often develop without any warning signs, if caught early, bowel cancer can be one of the most treatable cancers.

What is bowel cancer?

Bowel cancer arises when cells in the lining of the large intestine start to live longer and grow more rapidly than their natural lifecycle would normally allow. Often, the clumps of abnormal cells start off as harmless, benign growths called polyps, however, if left to their own devices, they can become cancerous.

What to look out for


In its early stages, bowel cancer may develop without causing any symptoms. However, people with cancer may notice symptoms such as:

  • Blood in their stools
  • Changes in bowel behaviour such as diarrhoea, constipation, increased frequency of bowel movements, or a feeling of incomplete emptying
  • Narrow stools
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • A lump in the anus or rectum

Risk Factors

  • There are several factors that can increase your risk of bowel cancer, including:
  • Having inherited genetic risk or family history
  • Presence of polyps
  • Age (especially in people 50+ years)
  • Inflammatory bowel diseases
  • High consumption of red and processed meats
  • High alcohol consumption
  • Obesity

Screening and diagnosis

If you’re between the ages of 50 and 74, you’ve probably received a letter from the Australian Government offering a free bowel cancer screening kit, allowing you to conduct the easy, noninvasive test in your own home.

The kit is supplied as part of the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program and comes with the instructions and materials you need to collect your stool or toilet water sample, as well as a prepaid envelope so that you can send it to the pathology lab for testing.

Pathologists will look for blood in the stool which can indicate the presence of polyps or bowel cancer. While a positive result won’t necessarily mean you have bowel cancer, it is important to talk to your GP and arrange for a colonoscopy within 30 days.

If you have a family history of bowel cancer, you may need extra testing to make sure you catch the cancer early. This can include having a colonoscopy every five years.

The best method for detecting bowel cancer is a colonoscopy. It allows medical practitioners to explore the length of the large bowel so they can easily identify any polyps or abnormal tissue. However, blood tests, CT or MRI scans and ultrasounds can also be used to diagnose the cancer.

Battling the beast in your bowels

The most common treatment for bowel cancer is surgery – where the affected part of the colon or rectum is removed and the two ends of the healthy bowel are joined together. The aim is to remove the cancer and surrounding lymph nodes to prevent it spreading to other areas of the body.

Chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy are often used to help reduce the size and number of cancer cells in the body prior to surgery and prevent their return afterward.

In more advanced cases, your doctor may talk to you about palliative care options which aim to slow the cancer’s progression, manage pain and other symptoms, and improve your quality of life, without trying to cure the illness.