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Bowel Cancer: Let’s talk awareness, symptoms, diagnosis & treatment

June is Bowel Cancer Awareness Month, a month dedicated to raising awareness of Australia’s second deadliest cancer and initiating discussions on prevention, diagnosis, research, quality treatment and care, and educating Australians about the condition. In today’s blog post, we will be discussing what bowel cancer is, its signs and symptoms, the diagnosis and screening process, available treatment options, and the role of lifestyle choices.

What is Bowel Cancer?

Bowel cancer, also known as colorectal cancer or colon cancer, can affect any part of the colon or rectum. The colon and rectum are parts of the large intestine. Bowel cancer claims the lives of 103 Australians every week, totalling 5,354 people per year, according to Bowel Cancer Australia (2023). The risk of bowel cancer increases with age, but the disease doesn’t discriminate and can affect people of all backgrounds and ages. This week alone, 300 Australians will be diagnosed with bowel cancer.

There are several risk factors that may contribute to the development of bowel cancer, including smoking, consuming an excessive amount of red meat (especially when charred), eating processed meats, drinking alcohol, and being overweight or obese. These risks are associated with diet and lifestyle choices, which can be modified. Non-modifiable factors include age, family history, hereditary conditions, and personal health history, all of which can influence the risk of bowel cancer. Patients with certain diseases and illnesses, such as type II diabetes, ovarian or digestive system cancer, and inflammatory bowel diseases including Crohn’s and Ulcerative Colitis, may be prone to developing bowel cancer symptoms.

Signs and Symptoms of Bowel Cancer

Because bowel cancer affects a significant number of Australians each year, being aware of the signs and symptoms can lead to early detection and better health outcomes, including successful treatment and long-term survival.

The signs and symptoms may not all occur simultaneously. You should consult a doctor if you experience bleeding from the back passage or notice blood after a bowel movement, a change in usual bowel habits such as straining (constipation) or loose motions (diarrhoea), abdominal pain or bloating, unexplained weight loss, or symptoms of anaemia.

Diagnosis and Screening for Bowel Cancer

There are various methods to detect bowel cancer. The first is a faecal occult blood test, which is a simple test that can be done at home. It is offered free to all Australians between the ages of 50 and 74. A test kit will be sent directly to your home. The test looks for hidden traces of blood in a bowel movement. This method can help detect bowel cancer in its early stages, particularly in people without symptoms. A faecal occult blood test is typically recommended every two years from the age of 50. If the test identifies any traces of blood, a colonoscopy is then conducted to further investigate for signs of cancer.

A colonoscopy involves a long, thin flexible tube with a video camera lens that is inserted into your bowel by a specialist. If the specialist identifies a polyp or bowel cancer, it can be removed during the procedure. Colonoscopy is typically performed as a day procedure under sedation and may be used as a surveillance test for people at increased risk of developing bowel cancer.

Another method for screening signs or traces of bowel cancer is sigmoidoscopy. This type of screening specifically explores the lower part of the bowel, where the cancer is more likely to develop.

Treatment Options for Bowel Cancer

Treatment for bowel cancer depends on various factors, including the stage of the disease, the location of the cancer, the severity of the symptoms, and the patient’s overall health. The different treatment options for bowel cancer include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, targeted therapy (which involves treating with medicines designed to specifically target and attack cancer cells without harming normal cells), immunotherapy, ablation, and embolisation. Throughout the treatment process, patients are supported by a team of health professionals, including both medical and allied health clinicians, who form a multidisciplinary team to ensure patients receive the necessary care.

Lifestyle Modifications and Prevention of Bowel Cancer

It is important to highlight the role of lifestyle choices in reducing the risk of bowel cancer. Encourage healthy habits, such as maintaining a balanced diet rich in fibre, staying physically active, limiting alcohol consumption, and quitting smoking. Also, the importance of regular exercise and maintaining a healthy body weigh is vital too.

As with any cancer, there are lifestyle changes that can help reduce the risk of developing bowel cancer. For bowel cancer, adopting the following lifestyle changes can help reduce the risk:

  • Quit smoking, as tobacco can lead to various health issues.
  • Limit alcohol intake.
  • Adopt a healthy diet that includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole foods.
  • Exercise regularly and maintain an active lifestyle, as it has been linked to a reduced risk of bowel cancer.


In 2022, we were lucky enough to interview a patient at Prince of Wales Hospital, Paolo who was receiving treatment for bowel cancer. To read his story head to: