Bowel cancer

Bowel cancer is a term for cancer that begins in the large bowel. Bowel cancer is one of the most common cancers in Northern Ireland. It’s important to be aware of the signs and symptoms of bowel cancer and take part in the screening programme if you are eligible.

Symptoms of bowel cancer

The three main symptoms of bowel cancer are:

  • persistent blood in the stools – that occurs for no obvious reason or is associated with a change in bowel habit
  • a persistent change in your bowel habit – which usually (but not always) means going more often, with looser stools (poo) – viral infections causing diarrhoea for a few days are common: if it doesn’t calm down in a few days seek medical advice
  • persistent lower abdominal (tummy) pain, bloating or discomfort – that's always caused by eating and may be associated with loss of appetite or significant unintentional weight loss

The symptoms of bowel cancer can be subtle and don't necessarily make you feel ill.

It’s worth waiting for a short time to see if they get better as the symptoms of bowel cancer are persistent.

If you're unsure whether to see your GP, try the bowel cancer symptom checker.

Bowel cancer symptoms are also very common. Most people with them don't have cancer.

For example:

  • blood in the stools, when associated with pain or soreness, is more often caused by piles (haemorrhoids)
  • a change in bowel habit or abdominal pain is usually the result of something you've eaten
  • a change in bowel habit to going less often, with harder stools, is not usually caused by any serious condition – it can be caused by a change in diet or dehydration – it may be worth trying laxatives and drinking more fluids before seeing your GP (ask your pharmacist if you need advice about laxatives)

These symptoms should be taken more seriously as you get older and when they persist despite simple treatments.

When to see your GP

Try the bowel cancer symptom checker for advice on what you can try to see if your symptoms get better, and when you should see your GP.

Your doctor may decide to:

  • carry out a simple examination of your tummy and bottom to make sure you have no lumps
  • arrange for a simple blood test to check for iron deficiency anaemia – this can show whether there's any bleeding from your bowel that you haven't been aware of
  • arrange for you to have a simple test in hospital to make sure there's no serious cause of your symptoms

Make sure you see your doctor if your symptoms persist or keep coming back after stopping treatment. This is regardless of how severe your symptoms are or your age. You'll probably be referred to hospital.

Causes of bowel cancer

It's not known exactly what causes bowel cancer. There are a number of things that can increase your risk.

These include:

  • age – 70 per cent of patients diagnosed with bowel cancer in Northern Ireland are over the age of 65 years – the rate is highest among men and women aged between 85 and 89
  • diet – a diet high in red or processed meats and low in fibre can increase your risk
  • weight – bowel cancer is more common in people who are overweight or obese
  • exercise – being inactive increases your risk of getting bowel cancer
  • alcohol and smoking – a high alcohol intake and smoking may increase your chances of getting bowel cancer
  • family history – having a close relative (mother or father, brother or sister) who developed bowel cancer under the age of 50 puts you at a greater lifetime risk of developing the condition; screening is offered to people in this situation, and you should discuss this with your GP

Some people also have an increased risk of bowel cancer because they have another condition, such as extensive ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease in the colon for more than 10 years.

You can help reduce your risk of developing bowel cancer by:

Bowel cancer screening

The bowel cancer screening programme in Northern Ireland aims to detect signs of bowel cancer at a very early stage when there is a good chance that treatment will be successful.

Men and women aged 60 to 74 who are registered with a GP are eligible for screening.

If you are in this age group, you will be offered the opportunity to take part in the screening programme every two years. Screening is a test that takes a small stool (faeces) sample and tests it for the presence of blood.

It is very important to have screening because the earlier cancer is diagnosed, the greater the chance of achieving a complete cure.

Treatment for bowel cancer

Bowel cancer can be treated using a combination of different treatments, depending on where the cancer is in your bowel and how far it has spread. The health professional looking after care will discuss treatment options with you.

As with most types of cancer, the chance of a cure depends on how far it has advanced by the time it's diagnosed.

If the cancer is confined to the bowel, surgery is usually able to completely remove it.

Living with bowel cancer

Bowel cancer can affect your daily life in different ways, depending on what stage it's at and the treatment you're having.

How people cope with their diagnosis and treatment varies from person to person. There are several forms of support available if you need it:

  • talk to your friends and family – they can be a powerful support system
  • communicate with other people in the same situation – for example, through bowel cancer support groups
  • find out as much as possible about your condition
  • don't try to do too much or overexert yourself
  • make time for yourself

You may also want advice on recovering from surgery, including diet and living with a stoma, and any financial concerns you have, see useful links below.

If you're told there's nothing more that can be done to treat your bowel cancer, there's still support available from your GP. This is known as palliative care.


The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.

For further information see terms and conditions.

This page was published April 2018

This page is due for review January 2020

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