Bowel cancer

Bowel cancer, also known as colorectal cancer, is the third highest cause of cancer-related death in Queensland men and women.

Give your MP a prod!Bowel cancer is one of the most commonly diagnosed cancers in Queensland; there are over 2700 new cases of bowel cancer diagnosed in Queensland each year.

Bowel cancer is more common in men, with 1 in 10 Queensland men and 1 in 13 Queensland women developing bowel cancer before age 85.

What is bowel (colorectal) cancer?

The bowel is made up of two sections: the small intestine and the large intestine. The term bowel cancer is used to refer to cancers that have developed in the large intestine. As the large intestine encompasses the colon and rectum, the terms colon cancer or rectal cancer are used to distinguish the exact location of the tumour. For this reason, bowel cancer is also referred to as colorectal cancer. Cancers can occur in the small intestine, however this is rare.

Generally, bowel cancers are slow growing and develop from polyps, which are growths on the inner lining of the bowel wall. If left untreated, polyps may continue to develop and become malignant (cancerous). A cancerous bowel tumour can remain localised in the bowel for some time, however it also has the potential to spread to lymph nodes, glands and other organs. The key to preventing the spread of the cancer to other parts of the body is early detection and treatment.

Risks and screening

From the age of 50, the risk of developing bowel cancer increases significantly. National guidelines recommend that everyone over the age of 50 be screened for bowel cancer. Anyone with a higher risk of developing the disease, because of their previous history of bowel cancer or polyps or a stong family history of bowel cancer, should consult their doctor - as should anyone who is experiencing symptoms.

People do not have to have symptoms or a family history of bowel cancer to be at risk of the disease. The disease can be present without any symptoms, making participation in screening even more important.

There are specific risk factors that increase a person's risk of developing bowel cancer. These include:

  • Increasing age - bowel cancer is most common in people aged over 50 years;
  • Poor diet and lifestyle factors;
  • A personal history of bowel cancer or polyps in the colon or rectum;
  • Having first or second degree relatives (a parent, sibling, grandparent, aunt, uncle, nephew or niece) with a history of bowel cancer or polyps;
  • The presence of chronic inflammatory bowel disease (including Crohn's disease and extensive ulcerative colitis); and
  • Having an immediate family member with:

People with an increased risk of developing bowel cancer should contact their health professional to discuss a regular, ongoing monitoring program. Regular screening can reduce the risk of developing bowel cancer.


Possible bowel cancer symptoms to be aware of include:

  • Rectal bleeding such as blood in the stool, on the toilet paper or in the toilet bowl (blood may be either bright or dark red).
  • A recent change in usual bowel patterns, which lasts for more than two weeks, such as constipation, diarrhoea, changes in frequency, solidity or stool size.
  • Lack of energy or tiredness.
  • Feeling of incomplete emptying of the bowel.
  • Unexplained weight loss or lack of appetite.
  • Persistent cramping or abdominal pain.

The presence of any of these symptoms does not necessarily mean you have bowel cancer. These symptoms can be caused by a wide range of other conditions. However it is important that you see your health professional promptly to have your symptoms investigated.

Some people with early symptoms of bowel cancer may delay seeking medical help, as they feel embarrassed, but it is important to talk about these problems as soon as you notice them.

Get Behind Bowel Cancer Screening

Thanks to your support, the Australian Government has committed $140 million to reinstate the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program from July 2011, with a commitment to permanent funding. This means we will never again have a situation where the future of the program is uncertain, as we did at the end of 2010.

As part of the program, free screening kits will be mailed to people turning 50, 55, and 65. It is important that people who receive a kit complete the test to determine if any early warning signs of cancer are present. A positive test results doesn't mean that bowel cancer is present, rather that more testing may be needed. It is vital that bowel cancer is detected early to give Queenslanders the best chance of surviving a diagnosis of bowel cancer.

Cancer Council Queensland and Cancer Council Australia will continue to advocate strongly for free, regular screening for ALL Australians 50 and over. We're going to need your help of course, because it is with your support that we can show the Government how important this issue is to our community.

To show your support for the program, visit

Fact Sheets

More information

For further information about the national program, call 1800 118 868 or visit
For more information regarding screening for bowel cancer, speak to your doctor; call the Cancer Council on 13 11 20 or visit

The information available on this page should not be used as a substitute for advice from a properly qualified medical professional who can advise you about your own individual medical needs. It is not intended to constitute medical advice and is provided for general information purposes only. See our Disclaimer.

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