Bowel Cancer

Find out about the risk factors and symptoms of bowel cancer and when to get tested

Who is at risk from Bowel Cancer?

Bowel cancer is a very serious disease affecting approximately 41,000 people in the UK every year and it is the UK’s second-biggest killer.

The risk of developing bowel cancer, also known as colon cancer, is influenced by a number of factors. Understanding these bowel cancer risk factors can help you make changes to your lifestyle and be aware of the condition. Just because you have a risk factor doesn’t necessarily mean you will develop bowel cancer.

The main bowel cancer risk factors include:


The risk of developing bowel cancer starts to rise significantly from the age of 45.


A diet high in red and processed meat has been found to increase bowel cancer risk, whilst diets with a high proportion of fruit, vegetables, whole grains and fibre are found to decrease risk. Cancer Research UK stated in 2010 that approximately 21% of all bowel cancers were related to the consumption of red and processed meat.


13% of bowel cancers are linked to obesity (having a BMI above 40), and there appears to be a stronger link between obesity and colon cancer in men. Long term smokers also have a higher risk of colon/bowel cancer than non-smokers and heavy consumption of alcohol is also known to increase the risk.

Family History

A strong family history of bowel cancer i.e. several relatives have suffered from the disease, can double your risk of developing the disease compared to the average risk (25%). Bowel cancer caused by genetic defects can lead to bowel cancer that occurs at a younger age than is common.


Certain racial groups are known to have higher bowel cancer incidence and mortality rates. Ashkenazi Jews are found to have several genetic mutations that cause one of the highest risks of bowel cancer amongst ethnic groups. African Americans also demonstrate a higher risk although the reason for this is yet to be established.

Other medical conditions – Other diseases often related to the colon such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease increase the risk of developing bowel cancer.

What should you look out for, what are the symptoms?

The same signs can also indicate other less serious conditions such as haemorrhoids (piles), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), diverticular disease, infection or inflammatory bowel disease (ulcerative colitis/Crohn’s disease). However, if you have any of the symptoms of bowel cancer listed below you should seek the advice of your GP immediately for further tests to confirm a diagnosis.

The symptoms of bowel cancer are:

  • Blood in your stools (poo) or bleeding from your bottom
  • A change in your bowel habits that lasts longer than three weeks. This may include an increase in the frequency of passing stools, loosening of the stool and less commonly hardening of the stool i.e. diarrhoea or constipation
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • A constant or intermittent pain in your tummy
  • A lump in your tummy that doesn’t go away
  • Extreme tiredness for no particular reason
  • A feeling that you haven’t fully emptied your back passage after going to the toilet

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As the disease progresses there may be other signs of bowel cancer to look out for. Bleeding may occur internally in the bowel but not be evident in the poo, leading to anaemia. This may cause:

  • Breathlessness
  • Dizziness
  • Tiredness
  • Looking pale

If the bowel cancer causes an obstruction you may also experience the following signs and symptoms:

  • Vomiting
  • Bloating/distension – particularly in the area around your belly button.
  • Difficulty in having a poo and/or passing wind/gas

How to reduce your risk 

A number of changes to your lifestyle can significantly reduce your risk of bowel cancer including:

  • Eating less red or processed meat
  • Eating a healthy balanced diet that includes fruit, vegetable, whole grains and fibre
  • Reducing your weight if overweight or obese
  • Reducing your alcohol intake
  • Stopping smoking – find out more about starting a smoking cessation programme in the NHS by clicking here 
  • Having regular bowel cancer screening from age 45+ 

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Why should I get tested?

Bowel cancer screening can help to detect cancers in their earliest stages and ensure you get treatment early. Screening can also detect the non-cancerous lesions (polyps) that may subsequently turn into cancer, and allow these to be removed, thus preventing bowel cancer from forming.

There is an NHS bowel cancer screening programme in the UK, BUT it is only available to people aged 60 or above (50 or above in Scotland). Since bowel cancer rates start to increase from the age of 45, it is possible to be tested privately with BowelCheck from this age.

Unlike the NHS bowel cancer screening programme, BowelCheck is available to anyone over the age of 45 and the testing mechanism is more advanced leading to more accurate results. No bowel cancer screening test can be guaranteed to be 100% accurate, and a positive result from BowelCheck will mean that further investigations are likely to be recommended.

The prognosis for bowel cancer can be very good if it is detected at the very early stages, which is why bowel cancer screening like BowelCheck is so important.

How can I get tested? What are the tests available and how does it work?

If you are worried about bowel cancer, Check4Cancer has developed BowelCheck, a simple testing kit that you can use in the comfort of your own home.

Initial tests for bowel cancer actually detect the presence of blood in a stool (poo) sample. This is known as a faecal occult blood test which involves sending a sample of poo to the lab for testing. If blood is detected, further investigations will be necessary and may include a colonoscopy (an examination of the whole of the large bowel using a flexible camera), a flexible sigmoidoscopy (a camera examination of the lower part of the bowel) or a virtual colonoscopy (a CT scan).

How doctors treat bowel cancer depends on the stage of the disease at diagnosis. Surgery is generally required to remove the affected part of the bowel. If the disease is more advanced, you may require chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy as well, and new approaches to treatment are looking at therapies which may reduce the risk of it coming back.

Find out more 


Order your BowelCheck test today

Order your BowelCheck test today

BowelCheck is a bowel cancer screening qFIT test that looks for signs of digested human blood in your stools as this can be a sign of bowel cancer. BowelCheck can be carried out in the comfort of your own home and is quick, hygienic and easy to use.