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Bowel cancer - at a glance

Bowel cancer, also known as colorectal cancer, is the third most common cancer in the UK. In 2011, 42,747 cases of bowel cancer were diagnosed.

Bowel cancer is also one of the most preventable forms of the disease. Scientists estimate that about half of all bowel cancer cases in the UK – over 20,000 new cases a year – could be prevented by maintaining a healthy weight, choosing a healthy diet, not drinking alcohol, and being physically active.

What is bowel cancer?

The bowel is part of our digestive system and it is divided into two parts: the small bowel and the large bowel. Nearly all bowel cancers are found in the large bowel, which is made up of the colon and the rectum.

The colon absorbs water and some nutrients from food as it passes through the system, leaving behind waste products. These waste products then move through the colon and the rectum before leaving the body.

Bowel cancer is caused by damaged cells, which can grow uncontrollably to form a tumour. Many different factors contribute to the development of bowel cancer – some of the most important factors are the diet and lifestyle choices we make every day.

Who is most at risk of bowel cancer?

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Reducing Your Risk of Bowel Cancer

As with all cancers, the risk of developing bowel cancer depends on a number of factors and varies from person to person. The good news is that there are steps you can take to reduce your risk.

Lifestyle risk factors

  • Being overweight or obese
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Diets low in fibre
  • Diets high in red and processed meat
  • Drinking alcohol
  • Smoking

Other risk factors

  • Age – risk increases as you get older
  • Family history of bowel cancer
  • Personal history of polyps or inflammatory bowel disease

If any of these risk factors apply to you, it does not mean that you will develop bowel cancer – it just means that your risk may be higher than average.

The important thing to remember is that bowel cancer is largely preventable.

Reducing your risk of bowel cancer

Our Continuous Update Project (CUP) found that there are steps you can take to reduce your risk of bowel cancer:

Research shows that being overweight or obese, and carrying extra weight around your waist in particular, increases the risk of bowel cancer. Try our Body Mass Index calculator and waist measurement guide to check if you are a healthy weight and shape.

Being physically active uses up extra calories and helps you avoid gaining weight. It also helps food to move through your digestive system more quickly. Try our exercise calorie calculator for ideas on how to be more active.

Try to include more wholegrains, pulses, vegetables and fruits in your diet. These foods contain fibre and help keep your digestive system healthy.

There is also strong scientific evidence that eating a lot of red meat causes bowel cancer. That's why we recommend eating less red meat – aim for less than 500g (cooked weight) a week. There is also strong research linking processed meat with bowel cancer so we recommend avoiding these meats as much as possible.

There is strong evidence that drinking alcohol increases bowel cancer risk. To reduce your risk as much as possible, we recommend not drinking alcohol at all. However, if you do choose to drink, try to stick to no more than 1 drink a day for women and 2 drinks a day for men and aim to have a few alcohol-free days a week. Try our alcohol calorie calculator.

Don’t smoke – if you do smoke, NHS stop smoking can help you quit.

What about screening?

The majority of bowel cancer cases can be successfully treated if they are found early – that's why it’s important to take part in NHS bowel screening whenever you are invited. Visit NHS Choices to find out about bowel cancer screening, symptoms and treatment.

Read more about how you can lower your cancer risk.

Bowel diagram

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Page last reviewed: October 2013
Page next due for review: October 2015
The information on this page is based on the findings of our Expert Report and is covered by the Information Standard.

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