Bowel cancer

Note: The information on cancer types on the ACRF website is not designed to provide medical or professional advice and is for information only. If you have any health problems or questions please consult your doctor. All statistics have been sourced from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

Bowel Cancer Statistics

  • In 2009, the risk of developing bowel cancer before the age of 85 was 1 in 12
  • In 2010, there were 3,982 deaths from bowel cancer
  • The five-year survival rate for bowel cancer is 66.2 per cent
  • Bowel cancer is considered one of the most treatable cancers, if detected early, however it remains the third highest cancer killer in both men and women
More cancer stats

Learn more about bowel cancer, one of the most prevalent cancers, at

The dedicated bowel cancer site hosts information and latest bowel cancer research news in one place.

Bowel Cancer Overview

Bowel cancer (also called colorectal cancer) occurs when abnormal cells in the wall of the large bowel (which includes the colon, rectum and anal canal) grow in an uncontrolled way.

The colon, a muscular tube around 1.5 metres long, absorbs water and nutrients from food. It is divided into four sections – the ascending colon, transverse colon, descending colon, and sigmoid colon. The rectum, which is the lowest six inches of the bowel, is the holding place for stool, which eventually passes out of the body through the anus.

Most bowel cancers are thought to develop from non-malignant growths in the sigmoid colon – the part just above the rectum or on the lining of the wall of the bowel. These non-malignant growths are called adenomas or polyps and they are easily detected by a medical examination. Not all polyps become cancerous.

If a polyp does become cancerous it can lead to the spread of cancer through some or all of the tissue layers making up the colon and rectum, often over several years. The severity of disease is assessed according to how many of the tissue layers the cancer penetrates.

Cancer within the bowel can narrow and block the bowel passage or cause bleeding.  In more advanced cases, the cancer can spread beyond the bowel to other organs.

The most common type of bowel cancer is called an adenocarcinoma, which are cancers of the cells lining the colon or rectum’s interior. Other rare types include squamous cell cancers (which start in the skin-like cells of the bowel lining), carcinoid tumours, gastrointestinal stromal tumours, sarcomas and lymphomas.

As most bowel cancers start as polyps, all polyps should be removed to reduce risk of developing bowel cancer.  A procedure called a colonoscopy can usually remove most polyps from the bowel. Once removed, the polyp can no longer develop into cancer.  Even if a polyp develops into cancer, in its early stages it can be cured by surgery.

Bowel Cancer Symptoms

Bowel cancer is usually a slow-growing cancer and often shows no symptoms in the early stages of the disease.

The most common symptoms of bowel cancer are:

  • Bleeding from the rectum (this may be noticed as blood in the stool)
  • A change in bowel habit (loose stools or constipation)
  • Anaemia
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Bloating
  • Abdominal pain or cramping
  • Unexplained tiredness or fatigue

There are a number of conditions that may cause these symptoms, so if any of these symptoms are experienced, it is important that they are discussed with a doctor.

Bowel Cancer Treatment

A number of tests may be performed to confirm a diagnosis. Some of the more common tests include:

  • A blood test to check for anaemia.
  • An internal examination of the rectum, anus and colon.
  • Imaging of the bowel.
  • Taking a biopsy.

Treatment depends on the size of the tumour, how deeply the cancer has penetrated the layers of the colon or rectum and whether it has spread to other organs, including the liver or lymph nodes. If the cancer is limited to a polyp, a surgical procedure called a colonoscopy to remove it could cure the disease.

If surgery is needed there are certain treatments that can be given depending on the stage and location of the cancer:

  • Neo-adjuvant radiotherapy and/or chemotherapy: Often this treatment is given before surgery. It shrinks and kills cancer cells thus making surgical procedures easier and more likely to succeed.
  • Adjuvant chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy: Treatment given after surgery to kill any remaining cancer cells left in the body.

If the cancer has spread to the colon, a surgeon may remove a portion of the bowel in a hemi-colectomy procedure, along with nearby lymph nodes. Laparoscopic technology and advances in fibre optics mean surgeons can often perform the procedures using small incisions that minimise patient discomfort and recovery time.

If the cancer is in the rectum, surgery can be more complex. Just as a lumpectomy for breast cancer removes as little of the healthy breast tissue as possible, if small cancers in the rectum haven’t grown through the bowel wall they may be removed locally.

If the cancer has grown through the rectum wall or spread to lymph nodes, more extensive surgery could be required.

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