Bowel cancer

What is bowel cancer?

Bowel cancer (also known as colorectal cancer) is a malignant growth that most often is found inside the large bowel but can also occur in the rectum. Most bowel cancers develop from small growths known as polyps. Polyps are like small spots on the bowel wall.

It is important to remember that not all polyps will grow into cancer, however regular screening will assist in the detection of any polyps.


Like other cancers, bowel cancer can develop with no signs or symptoms.

If you do experience any symptoms, these may include:

  • bleeding from the rectum
  • blood in your bowel motions (faeces)
  • persistent pain in the abdomen
  • persistent change in normal bowel habits such as diarrhoea, constipation or going to the toilet more often
  • unexplained tiredness
  • weight loss

If you have any of these symptoms, contact your doctor to discuss.

Who’s at risk of getting bowel cancer?

Both men and women can get bowel cancer, however, your chances of getting bowel cancer increase if you:

  • have other bowel diseases or experience bowel irregularities
  • are aged 50 years or older
  • are overweight
  • smoke
  • physically inactive
  • drink large amounts of alcohol
  • have a strong family history of bowel cancer or polyps
  • have a poor diet
  • have had previous non-cancerous tumours in the bowel

Ways to reduce your risk

Being healthy can prevent bowel cancer. To reduce your risk (PDF 2MB), it is recommended that you:

  • maintain a healthy body weight
  • be active
  • eat a healthy diet full of fruit and vegetables that’s high in fibre
  • limit red and processed meat
  • limit alcohol
  • avoid smoking
  • Screen for bowel cancer using a Faecal Occult Blood Test every two years from the age of 50

Bowel cancer facts

  • Australia has one of the highest rates of bowel cancer in the world
  • Men are at greater risk than women in developing bowel cancer
  • Each year, around 17,000 Australians are diagnosed with bowel cancer and over 90% of these people are aged over 50
  • The risk of bowel cancer rises sharply from age 50 years
  • It is the second most common cause of cancer related death in Australia
  • Around 100 Australians die each week from bowel cancer
  • In 2017, 407 people died of bowel cancer in South Australia and 1,181 new cases were diagnosed
  • If found early, 9 out of 10 cases of bowel cancer can be successfully treated