Bowel cancer: frequently asked questions

Advice about bowel cancer and the actions you can take to lower your risk can be confusing.

What’s the difference between bowel cancer and colorectal cancer? Are bowel and colorectal cancer the same as colon cancer?

There’s no difference between bowel cancer and colorectal cancer – the terms can be used interchangeably. The bowel is divided into two parts, with nearly all cancers found in the large bowel rather than the small bowel. The colon is a part of the large bowel.

What’s the link between eating wholegrains and my risk of bowel cancer?

Latest research has found strong evidence that regularly eating wholegrain food such as wholewheat cereals, wholemeal bread and flour, brown rice and (plain!) popcorn could reduce your risk of bowel cancer.

How much wholegrain food do I have to eat to reduce my cancer risk?

Our latest research has found that your risk of bowel cancer decreases by 17 per cent for every 90g of wholegrains consumed. A normal serving of wholegrains (for example, two Weetabix, two slices of wholemeal bread or a plate of risotto made with brown rice) is around 30g, so we recommend three servings of wholegrains every day.

How can I get more wholegrains into my diet?

It’s easier than you might think to eat more wholegrains – an easy place to start is to swap your normal white rice for brown rice. There’s lots of great recipes featuring brown rice on the Real Recipes section of our website, including a colourful rice and chicken salad and a healthy version of everyone’s favourite Chinese takeaway, egg fried rice.

Apart from eating more wholegrains, what else can I eat to reduce my risk?

Replacing processed meat with chicken, fish, eggs or low-fat houmous is a great way of reducing your risk of bowel cancer. We also recommend that you eat plenty of fruit and vegetables – they are an essential part of a balanced diet and can help maintain a healthy weight, which is important for preventing bowel cancer as well as many other chronic diseases. It’s possible that eating plenty of fish could also reduce your risk, but more research is needed before we can say for definite.

Can exercise help protect against bowel cancer?

Moderate exercise such as brisk walking can reduce your risk of cancer of the colon, a part of the bowel – our latest research has found that those who are more physically active have a decreased risk compared to those who do very little. For cancer prevention generally, people should aim to do at least 30 minutes of moderate level exercise, such as brisk walking, every day.

Dairy products are associated with a decreased risk of bowel cancer, so why don’t you recommend drinking more milk?

It’s true that there’s evidence linking dairy products to a decreased risk of bowel cancer. However, don’t think that by consuming lots more dairy products you’ll necessarily be protecting yourself against cancer – there are also indications that consuming dairy products may increase the risk of prostate cancer.

I’ve heard that multivitamins and vitamin D supplements can reduce my risk of bowel cancer. Is this true?

More research is needed before we can draw firm conclusions on whether multivitamins and vitamin D supplements decrease bowel cancer risk. To prevent cancer, what we can say is that you should aim to get all the nutrition you need from your diet. The Department of Health advises that people should consider taking a daily supplement containing 10 micrograms of vitamin D in autumn and winter to protect bones and muscle health. During the spring and summer most people should get all the vitamin D they need from sunlight on the skin.

What lifestyle factors can increase my bowel cancer risk?

Eating red meat such as beef or pork and processed meat such as bacon and salami significantly increases your risk of bowel cancer – our latest research shows a 16 per cent increase in risk for every 50g of processed meat eaten each day. Being overweight has also been shown to increase cancer risk.

What about alcohol?

There’s strong evidence that consuming two or more alcoholic drinks each day increases your risk of bowel cancer. However, this doesn’t mean that we recommend a daily tipple – even one drink can increase the risk of some other cancers, so we recommend not drinking alcohol at all. If you do drink, follow national guidelines.

Is it true that taller people have a higher risk of bowel cancer?

Yes, there is a five per cent increase in bowel cancer risk for every 5cm increase in height. However, it’s not how tall you are that’s the key factor – it’s the processes that determine your height. If you are tall, being a healthy weight, eating a healthy diet and being physically active will all help reduce your risk of cancer.

What are the statistics for bowel cancer? How common is it?

Bowel cancer is the fourth most common cancer in the UK. In 2017, 43,438 cases of bowel cancer were diagnosed.

How many cases of bowel cancer could be prevented in the UK each year?

Even though bowel cancer is so common, we estimate that 45 per cent of bowel cancer cases in the UK could be prevented if we all made some simple changes to our lifestyles such as eating more wholegrains and less processed or red meat. Maintaining a healthy weight also reduces the risk of many other chronic diseases, including ten other common cancers.

*Cancer statistics based on combined data from EnglandScotlandNorthern Ireland. World Cancer Research Fund, 2020.