Reducing your risk of bowel cancer

Can bowel cancer be prevented?

Bowel cancer, also known as colorectal cancer, is the fourth most common cancer in the UK. In 2013, 42,222 cases of bowel cancer were diagnosed.

Bowel cancer is also one of the most preventable types of cancer.

In fact, scientists estimate that about half of all bowel cancer cases in the UK could be prevented through healthy lifestyle choices - that's 19,000 fewer cases a year.

What is bowel cancer?

The bowel is part of your digestive system and it’s 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. 

There are lots of different reasons why bowel cancer develops – some of the most important factors are your diet and lifestyle choices.

Who is most at 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.

How can you reduce your risk of bowel cancer?

These steps are based on research from our Continuous Update Project (CUP).

  • Stay in shape

Being overweight or obese, and carrying extra weight around your waist, increases your risk of bowel cancer. Try our Body Mass Index calculator to check if you’re a healthy weight.

  • Be more active

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.

  • Eat well

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 evidence to show that milk decreases the risk of bowel cancer. This is likely to be partly due to calcium, although there may be other components in milk that might also play a role. Choose lower fat options, such as skimmed to semi-skimmed milk rather than full fat to help maintain a healthy weight.

Experts also know that eating processed meat increases your bowel cancer risk, as does eating a lot of red meat. Try to limit your red meat intake to no more than 500g (cooked weight) a week and avoid processed meat whenever possible.

  • Cut down on alcohol

There’s strong evidence that drinking alcohol increases bowel cancer risk. Find out more about the link between alcohol and cancer or try our alcohol calorie calculator.

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.