Cancer Council Australia

Join our network

Facebook Twitter Instagram
Pinterest Youtube RSS

Larger Text Smaller Text Print

Bowel cancer

Bowel (or colorectal) cancer occurs in the colon or rectum. It is the second most common cancer in Australia (not including non-melanoma skin cancer). In 2010, 14,860 new cases of bowel cancer were diagnosed in Australia.

If detected early, the chance of successful treatment and long-term survival improves significantly.

What are the bowel cancer symptoms I need to look out for?

Not all bowel cancers show symptoms and experiencing symptoms does not necessarily mean you have bowel cancer. However you should see your doctor if you notice:

  • bleeding from the back passage or any sign of blood after a bowel motion
  • a change in usual bowel habit, such as straining (constipation) to go to the toilet or loose motions (diarrhoea)
  • abdominal pain or bloating
  • weight loss for no obvious reason, or loss of appetite
  • symptoms of anaemia - including unexplained tiredness, weakness or breathlessness.

Who is at risk?

Everyone is at risk of developing bowel cancer, however the risk greatly increases with age, particularly from age 50. You are also at greater risk if you have:

  • a previous history of polyps in the bowel
  • a previous history of bowel cancer
  • chronic inflammatory bowel disease (eg. Crohn's disease)
  • a strong family history of bowel cancer
  • increased insulin levels or type 2 diabetes.

If you are at increased risk, discuss surveillance options with your doctor.

How is bowel cancer detected?

Bowel cancer can be detected using a variety of methods.

Faecal Occult Blood Test (FOBT) is a simple test that can be done at home and looks for hidden traces of blood in a bowel motion in people without symptoms. It can help detect bowel cancer in its early stages. You should have an FOBT every two years from age 50. If an FOBT finds blood, further investigation, usually a colonoscopy, is needed to establish the cause.

A population-based screening program for bowel cancer, the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program, using FOBT, is currently offered free to people turning 50, 54, 58, 60, 62, 64, 65, 68, 70, 72 or 74 years of age, with test kits sent by mail. From 2020, all Australians aged 50 to 74 will be offered the test free every two years. For more information visit

Colonoscopy involves a long, thin, flexible tube with a video camera lens on the end, enabling a specialist to look inside your bowel. If a polyp or bowel cancer is found, it can be removed during the procedure. Colonoscopy is usually performed under sedation as day procedure. It is also used as a surveillance test for people at increased risk of developing bowel cancer.

Sigmoidoscopy is similar to colonoscopy, however only explores the lower part of the bowel, where cancer is more likely to develop. If a precancerous polyp is detected during the procedure a full bowel examination by colonoscopy is usually needed.

Other diagnostic tests for bowel cancer are available.

Discuss these options with your doctor.

What else can I do?

Bowel cancer is one of the most preventable cancers.

Your most effective protection is to:

  • do an FOBT every two years from age 50.
  • get 30 to 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise per day.
  • maintain a healthy body weight.
  • eat a well balanced diet.
  • avoid processed and burnt meat; limit red meat intake to three to four times per week.
  • limit alcohol.
  • quit smoking.

Where can I get reliable information?

Cancer Council 13 11 20
Information and support for you and your family for the cost of a local call anywhere in Australia.

Cancer Council Australia website
About bowel cancer

National Bowel Cancer Screening Program
Information Line 1800 118 868 


How you can help

You can support Cancer Council by:

  • volunteering your time
  • participating in an event or
  • making a donation to help fund our cancer research, education and support services.

This page was last updated on: Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Web design Code and Visual