Bowel Cancer

According to the Anti-Cancer Council of Victoria, bowel cancer is the third most common cancer in Australia, with an estimated 15,250 people diagnosed every year. Bowel cancer can have huge implications for not only the individual, but also for their families, friends and relatives. While it’s normal to feel sad, angry and worried about a diagnosis, it’s important to talk to your doctor about what your diagnosis means for you.

What is bowel cancer?

Bowel cancer is a cancer that occurs in any part of the large bowel, including the colon or rectum. Another word for it is colorectal cancer. Bowel cancer generally forms from the inner lining (mucosa) of the bowel. It typically begins as a series of small growths (polyps). Most polyps are harmless; however, some can turn cancerous (malignant) over time. If bowel cancer is left untreated, it can grow into the deeper layers of the bowel wall. It can also spread to the lymph nodes and potentially move to other organs such as the lungs or liver.


Bowel cancer symptoms

In its early stages, bowel cancer may not have any symptoms. For this reason, it’s a good idea to have a screening test. That said, many people do experience bowel cancer symptoms, including:

  • Bleeding after a bowel movement – blood in stool
  • Changes to bowel habits, such as constipation or diarrhoea
  • Changes in the appearance of your bowel movements
  • Feeling bloated or full
  • Feeling that your bowel hasn’t completely emptied after you’ve had a movement
  • Weight loss, weakness or fatigue
  • Pain or a lump in the rectum or anus
  • Rectal or anal pain

These symptoms can also be caused by other conditions such as hemorrhoids, diverticulitis or anal fissures, which means it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor before worrying about cancer.

Is bowel cancer hereditary?

Bowel cancer can run in families. It’s uncommon for it to be caused by an inherited gene, and is more likely to be the result of family members having similar lifestyle and dietary choices. If you have a history of bowel cancer in your family, talk to your doctor. Also let your doctor know if there have been other types of cancers (apart from bowel cancer) in your family.


Life after a bowel cancer diagnosis

Many people who are diagnosed with bowel cancer undergo successful treatment. Regular tests are conducted to make sure that it has not returned, and after five years if it has not returned, you will be considered to be cleared.


What is a stoma?

Some people need a stoma after bowel cancer surgery. A stoma is a surgically created opening that lets faeces leave the body. A surgeon creates a stoma by taking the end of the bowel and stitching it to the skin around the new opening. A stoma can be temporary or permanent, depending on the individual’s situation. A stoma bag is then attached to the opening. Stoma bags are leak-proof and odour proof. Stoma bags usually can’t be seen under clothing.

Independence Australia stocks a wide range of stoma bags which can be found here.


Bowel surgery and radiation therapy can lead to incontinence. Incontinence is when a person cannot control their bowel or bladder movements. Bowel surgery can weaken the muscles around the anus, which makes it difficult to hold on when you need to go to the toilet. Not all incontinence issues are permanent, and it’s a good idea to talk to your surgeon or GP if you are worried or unsure.

You might also like to check in with the National Continence Helpline to talk to a continence nurse about what you are experiencing.

More Continence Advice

Looking for more tips on managing bowel and bladder health? Check out our wide range of health tips from leading health professionals.

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