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 being a healthy weight, eating well and being physically active – that's about 19,000 fewer cases a year.

What is bowel cancer?

The bowel is part of our 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.

Most of the nutrients from the food we eat are absorbed in the small bowel. Food then passes into the colon where water and any remaining nutrients are absorbed, leaving behind solid waste products. These waste products then move through the colon and the rectum before leaving the body.

Bowel cancer starts when cells in the bowel lining are damaged and then grow uncontrollably, forming a tumour. 

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

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.

Lifestyle risk factors

  • Eating too much red and processed meat
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Not eating enough fibre-containing foods
  • Not doing enough physical activity (colon cancer only)
  • Drinking alcohol
  • Smoking tobacco

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 good news is that there are steps you can take to reduce your risk.

How can you reduce your risk of bowel cancer?

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

  • Eat well

There is strong evidence that eating processed meat (such as salami, bacon and ham) increases your bowel cancer risk, as does eating a lot of red meat (such as beef, lamb, pork or goat). Try to limit your red meat intake to no more than 500g (cooked weight) a week and avoid processed meat whenever possible.

Try to include more wholegrains, pulses, vegetables and fruit in your diet. These foods contain fibre and help keep your digestive system healthy. Take a look at our healthy recipes for inspiration.

There is also evidence to show that consuming 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.

  • Be a healthy weight

Being overweight or obese increases your risk of bowel cancer. Try our Body Mass Index calculator to check if you’re a healthy weight for your height.

  • 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.

  • 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 find out how many calories are in alcoholic drinks by using our alcohol calorie calculator.

  • Don’t smoke

If you do smoke, stopping smoking will reduce your risk. The NHS stop smoking service 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 cancer screening whenever you are invited. Visit NHS Choices to find out about bowel cancer screening, symptoms and treatment.