Help Beat Bowel Cancer

June 7 2022

June is Bowel Cancer Awareness Month.

Let’s raise awareness of Australia’s second deadliest cancer.

Bowel cancer claims the lives of 101 Australians every week (5,255 people a year) – but it’s one of the most treatable types of cancer if found early. While the risk of bowel cancer increases significantly with age, the disease doesn’t discriminate, affecting men and women, young and old.

293 Australians will be diagnosed with bowel cancer this week (15,206 people a year).

What is bowel cancer?

Bowel cancer, also known as colorectal cancer, can affect any part of the colon or rectum; it may also be referred to as colon cancer or rectal cancer, depending on where the cancer is located.

Who gets bowel cancer?

Bowel cancer affects men and women, young and old.
Australia has one of the highest rates of bowel cancer in the world; 1 in 15 Australians will develop the disease in their lifetime.
Bowel cancer is Australia’s second deadliest cancer.
Around 30% people who develop bowel cancer have either a hereditary contributionfamily history or a combination of both. The other 70% of people have no family history of the disease and no hereditary contribution.
The risk of developing bowel cancer rises sharply and progressively from age 50, but the number of Australians under age 50 diagnosed with bowel cancer has been increasing steadily. That’s why it’s important to know the symptoms of bowel cancer and have them investigated if they persist for more than two weeks.
Almost 99% of bowel cancer cases can be treated successfully when detected early.

What are the symptoms of bowel cancer?

During the early stages of bowel cancer, people may have no symptoms, which is why screening is so important.
As a cancerous tumour grows, it can narrow and block the bowel resulting in changes to the size, shape, and/or colour of poo, with our without rectal bleeding. These symptoms are often attributed to haemorrhoids or simply ignored.
Cancers occurring in the left side of the colon generally cause constipation alternating with diarrhoea, abdominal pain and obstructive symptoms, such as nausea and vomiting.
Right-sided colon lesions produce vague, abdominal aching, unlike the colicky pain seen with obstructive left-sided lesions.
Anaemia (low red blood cell count) resulting from chronic blood loss, weakness, weight loss and/or an abdominal mass may also occur when bowel cancer affects the right side of the colon.
Patients with cancer of the rectum may present with a change in bowel movements; rectal fullness, urgency, or bleeding; and tenesmus (cramping rectal pain).
Any of the below symptoms could be indicative of colon or rectal cancer and should be investigated by your GP if they persist for more than two weeks.
  • Blood in your poo or rectal bleeding
  • A recent, persistent change in bowel habit (e.g. diarrhoea, constipation or the feeling or incomplete emptying)
  • A change in the shape or appearance of your poo (e.g. narrower poos or mucus in poo)
  • Abdominal pain or swelling
  • Pain or a lump in the anus or rectum
  • Unexplained anaemia causing tiredness, weakness or weight loss


What factors increase my bowel cancer risk?

There are two kinds of risk factors for bowel cancer – those that can be changed (modifiable) and those that cannot (non-modifiable).
Bowel cancer risk is increased by smoking, eating an excessive amount of red meat (especially when charred), eating processed meats (smoked, cured, salted or preserved), drinking alcohol, and being overweight or obese.
These risks can all be addressed through diet and lifestyle changes and are referred to as modifiable.
Age, family history, hereditary conditions and personal health history can also influence bowel cancer risk. Because they cannot be changed they are referred to as non-modifiable.
A person’s risk category also depends on how many close relatives have bowel cancer and their age at diagnosis.
Someone with several close relatives diagnosed with bowel cancer before age 50 has a much higher risk than someone with no close relatives with bowel cancer.

How can I reduce my bowel cancer risk?

Healthy diet and lifestyle choices, as well as screening and surveillance, can help to reduce your bowel cancer risk.
Evidence reveals quitting smoking, abstaining from or limiting alcohol consumption, and eating foods containing dietary fibre are all beneficial.
Maintaining a healthy weight and engaging in regular physical activity have also been shown to reduce the risk of colon cancer, but not rectal cancer.
Additionally, people who are more physically active before a bowel cancer diagnosis are less likely to die from the disease than those who are less active.
For people aged 50-70 years without symptoms or a family history of bowel cancer, a GP may also recommend taking a low dose of aspirin for at least 2.5 years.
Whether or not a person should take aspirin depends on their general health, and whether they have another condition that could be made worse by aspirin (e.g. allergy to aspirin, stomach ulcers, bleeding or kidney problems).


Bowel cancer screening is safe and easy and can be done at home.

For people at average or near average risk* of bowel cancer, Australian medical guidelines recommend screening using a faecal immunochemical test (FIT) every 2 years between ages 50-74.
The guidelines also state GPs can offer a faecal immunochemical test every 2 years to people aged 45-49 who request it, after being fully informed of the benefits (and any possible harms) of testing.
In May 2018, the American Cancer Society changed its screening guidelines to recommend lowering the starting age for people at average risk of bowel cancer from 50 to 45 years in response to the rising rates of bowel cancer in young and middle-aged populations. The updated guidelines also state for people aged 76-85, the decision to be screened should be based on a person’s preferences, life expectancy, overall health, and prior screening history.
Screening involves collecting small samples of toilet water or poo, placing them on a card or in a container, and mailing them to a pathology laboratory for analysis. The results are then sent back to the individual and their GP.
By 2020, Australia will have a fully implemented National Bowel Cancer Screening Program (NBCSP), whereby people aged 50-74 will receive a tax-payer funded screening test in the mail every 2 years.
positive result means blood in poo has been detected. It does not necessarily mean bowel cancer is present but does require further investigation by a GP and a referral for colonoscopy within 30 days.
negative result means blood in poo has not been detected in the samples; however, it does not guarantee no cancer is present or that the person will never develop bowel cancer.
The at-home test is able to detect non-visible blood that cannot be seen with the naked eye. Blood in poo is one possible symptom of bowel cancer. If the result of the test is positive, the person is contacted to arrange a colonoscopy.
For people ineligible to participate in the government program, talk to your GP or pharmacist today about BowelScreen Australia, or order a screening test online or by calling Bowel Cancer Australia’s Helpline on 1800 555 494.
For more information about Bowel Cancer, visit Bowel Cancer Australia.