This blog post was edited in March 2023 to update the latest bowel cancer statistics
Our evidence strongly shows that what we eat, how active we are, our weight, whether we smoke, as well as how much we drink all have a big role to play in our risk of bowel cancer, also known as colorectal cancer.
There are some factors that can increase your risk of bowel cancer that you can’t control, such as: your gender and age, whether you have a family history of bowel cancer or a personal history of inflammatory bowel disease or polyps. At the same time, only 5–10% of bowel cancers are a consequence of recognised hereditary conditions.
But the good news is there are factors that you can control. These are known as modifiable risk factors – things in your behaviour or environment that affect your cancer risk. In the UK, bowel cancer has the second-highest number of cases attributable to modifiable risk factors.
Bowel cancer is the 4th most common cancer in the UK. There were 44,706 cases in 2019, accounting for 11.5% of all cancer cases in the UK. In women, bowel cancer is the 3rd most common cancer, and it’s the 2nd most common in men. Bowel cancer is also more common as you get older, with over 90 percent of new cases diagnosed in people over 50 – although rates of bowel cancer among younger adults are increasing.
Lower your risk
We have many resources, including free health guides and factsheets, to help you understand more about what causes bowel cancer, and how you can reduce your risk.
Eat more wholegrains and fibre
Eating more wholegrains and foods containing fibre lowers your risk of bowel cancer and helps keep your digestive system healthy.
Wholegrains are an important source of dietary fibre and include wholewheat pasta, wholemeal bread and brown rice. Fibre is also found in vegetables, fruit, pulses such as beans, peas and lentils, and nuts and seeds (we advise eating unsalted varieties).
Avoid processed meat and limit red meat
Avoiding processed meat (such as salami, bacon,, and ham) and reducing your red meat intake (such as beef, lamb, pork, or goat) can lower your bowel cancer risk. A study of global research by World Cancer Research Fund showed that 14.5% of male and 10% of female bowel cancer cases were linked to eating processed meat. A recent survey for World Cancer Research Fund revealed that almost 6 in 10 people in the UK were unaware that processed meat can increase the risk of bowel cancer.
Be more active
Being more physically active can lower your bowel cancer risk, as well as providing a wide range of mental and physical health benefits, including helping you stay a healthy weight.
Stay a healthy weight
Keeping your weight in a healthy range can lower your bowel cancer risk. Being mindful of what you eat and being more physically active can help you achieve and maintain a healthy weight.
Avoid alcohol and smoking
Avoiding alcohol and smoking can reduce your bowel cancer risk. Alcohol and tobacco products contain many known carcinogens – substances that cause cancer – while alcohol often contains many calories but not many nutrients.
It is important to speak to your doctor if you have persistent blood in your poo, changes in your bowel habits – particularly more frequent or runnier poo, or pain in your lower tummy, bloating, or discomfort from eating. It is most likely nothing to worry about, but it could be early signs of bowel cancer. That’s why it’s important to get any symptoms or changes checked by your doctor.
To learn more about bowel cancer and practical tips on how to lower your risk of developing it, download or order our updated bowel cancer booklet.