Colorectal cancer 101: symptoms, screening and reducing your risk

3 minute read time.
Colorectal cancer 101: symptoms, screening and reducing your risk

This month is colorectal cancer awareness month. Our Cancer Information Development Nurse, Sue, has written a blog with all you need to know about colorectal cancer. 

Colorectal cancer, or bowel cancer - is the 4th most common cancer in the UK[1]. The term bowel cancer is normally used when talking about colon cancer and rectal cancer.

Bowel cancer can be curable if it is found early. So being aware of symptoms and seeing your GP sooner rather than later can make a real difference.

Symptoms of colorectal cancer

No one likes talking about bowels and poo! And it can feel embarrassing to see your GP with bowel problems. But remember they are used to dealing with embarrassing topics. And they are there to help and support you.

So when should you see your GP? The following lists the main symptoms of bowel cancer:

  • blood in or on your poo (stools), or bleeding from the back passage (rectum)
  • a change in your normal bowel habit – for example, diarrhoea or constipation
  • unexplained weight loss
  • pain in your tummy (abdomen) or back passage
  • feeling that you have not emptied your bowel properly after you poo
  • unexplained tiredness, dizziness or breathlessness

These symptoms can be caused by other conditions, but you should always get them checked by your doctor.

Bowel cancer screening

Some people may be diagnosed through the bowel cancer screening programme. This is offered to people aged between 50 and 60, depending on which part of the UK you live. If you are registered with a GP you will automatically be invited to take part.

Bowel cancer screening involves sending a very small sample of your poo to a laboratory where it is checked for tiny amounts of blood.

Reducing the risk of bowel cancer

There are things you can do that can help reduce your risk of getting bowel cancer. Nothing can completely reduce your risk but doing the following can help.

  • Have a healthy diet - this includes lots of fruit and vegetables, starchy foods such as rice and pasta, some protein rich foods such as meat, poultry and pulses, and some dairy foods. Try to limit how much red and processed meat you have as they are linked to a higher risk of bowel cancer. Eating brown rice and wholegrain bread and other high-fibre foods also helps reduce your risk.
  • Keep to a healthy weight – being overweight is a risk factor for a different cancer types, including bowel cancer
  • Do some regular physical activity – this can help reduce the risk of some cancers including bowel cancer. See your GP first if you are not used to doing regular physical activity
  • Keep to alcohol guidelines – drinking alcohol increases the risk of bowel cancer. Sticking to recommended guidelines reduces your risk of damaging your health
  • Give up smoking – smoking is a risk factor for bowel cancer as well as other cancers.

There are some risk factors for bowel cancer that you can’t do anything about. This includes getting older or having an inflammatory bowel condition. And remember not having any risk factors does not mean you definitely won’t get bowel cancer.  

A few people are at a higher risk of developing bowel cancer. This is because they have an inherited gene change that increases their risk. They may be offered screening and other treatments to help reduce or manage their risk.  

Treatment for bowel cancer

There are different treatments for bowel cancer. Surgery is the main treatment. For some people it may be the only treatment they need. Other treatments include chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Targeted therapy and immunotherapy may be used if the cancer comes back or has spread to other parts of the body.

For information, support or just someone to talk to, call 0808 808 00 00 or visit We also have a playlist on our YouTube channel about bowel cancer.