Incontinence Advice

A Complete Guide To Living With Bowel Cancer

This article is a complete guide for individuals living with bowel cancer. It covers symptoms, diagnosis, treatments, and lifestyle changes that can help manage the condition. Faecal incontinence products can also be used to help you manage this condition.

cancer patient hugging another person

What Is Bowel Cancer?


Bowel cancer is the fourth most common cancer in the UK and the second biggest cancer killer. Nearly 43,000 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer every year in the UK and roughly around 268,000 people living in the UK today have been diagnosed with bowel cancer[i].



It can be found anywhere in the large bowel, which includes the colon and rectum and is one of the most common types of cancer in the UK.


Bowel cancer, maybe referred to as colorectal cancer, this affects the large bowel, which is made up of the colon and rectum. When cancer is present abnormal cells start to divide and grow in an uncontrolled way. The cells can grow into surrounding tissues or organs and may spread to other areas of the body.



Receiving the news that you have cancer can have a significant impact on your physical and emotional well-being. The diagnosis of bowel cancer can be a shock in itself and may lead to feelings of fear, anxiety, and uncertainty about the future. However, there are various treatment options and resources available to help manage symptoms and improve quality of life for those living with bowel cancer.



As April is Bowel Cancer Awareness month, we want to share our knowledge on living with bowel cancer, including the causes and symptoms of this condition, as well as various treatment options and tips for managing symptoms on a day-to-day basis.


Early Symptoms of Bowel Cancer


Early detection is key to successfully treating any type of cancer. However, bowel cancer is often undetectable for several years before symptoms start to make themselves known.


Some of the most common symptoms of bowel cancer that may start occurring at an early stage may include:


● Blood in your faeces

● Changes in bowel habits, such as more frequent stools

● Abdominal pain in the stomach or lump in your stomach

● Unexplained weight loss

● Unexpected extreme tiredness


It's important to know that most people with these symptoms don't have bowel cancer. Other health problems can cause similar symptoms. But if you have any of these, or if things just don't feel right, go to see your GP.


You may need to visit your doctor more than once if your symptoms don't get better.


Knowing the symptoms and acting on them as quickly as possible could mean that if you do have bowel cancer, it may be diagnosed earlier when it's much easier to treat. People whose cancer is diagnosed at an early stage have a much higher chance of successful treatment than those whose cancer has become more widespread.



Late Symptoms of Bowel Cancer


When bowel cancer reaches stage four, it may have spread to other parts of the body, for example the Lymph Nodes. If this occurs you will be diagnosed with what is known as advanced bowel cancer. During this late stage, you may experience different symptoms if it has spread. Here are some of the symptoms you may experience if the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes[ii] :


● Loss of appetite

● Feeling fatigued

● Low energy levels


Symptoms of Bowel Cancer Spreading To Your Lungs

● A persistent cough

● Breathlessness

● Coughing up blood

● Chest infections

● Fluid between the chest wall and lung [iii]


Symptoms of Bowel Cancer Spreading To Your Liver

● A persistent cough

● Loss of appetite

● Weight loss

● Swollen abdomen

● Itchy skin

● Nausea

● Abdomen pain [iv]


Symptoms That Bowel Cancer Spreading To Your Bones 

● Bone pain

● Weakened bone/s

● Tiredness

● Nausea

● Confusion [v]



How Is Bowel Cancer Diagnosed?


If you, a friend or relative are experiencing symptoms of bowel cancer, then you should book an appointment with your GP as soon as possible. When you see your GP, they will question you about your symptoms and any family history of bowel cancer.

After obtaining the necessary history the GP will complete a digital rectal examination (DRE). This is where they put a gloved finger inside your bottom to check for any lumps.

You will be asked to undress from the waist down for the rectal exam. You can ask for a male or female doctor or nurse or ask for someone else to be in the room with you when the rectal examination happens.

You may also be asked for a poo sample (stool sample) for testing.


If the diagnosis suggests that you may have bowel cancer, your GP will refer you to the hospital for another examination called a colonoscopy. This examination involves a long, thin tube attached to a small camera and light being gently inserted into your rectum to explore your bowel.


doctor testing a patients blood pressure

Stages Of Bowel Cancer


There are different ways of staging bowel cancer. However, the most common is by numbering. This staging system gives each stage a number from 0 to 4, which relates to how far along the cancer is.

These are the stages of Bowel Cancer:


      Stage 0 - Also known as CIS, stage 0 means you have an early stage of bowel cancer. If this is the case, cancer cells are present in your bowel lining, but they are well contained. There is little chance of the cells spreading at this stage.

      Stage 1 - At this first stage, the cancer cells have grown through the inner lining of your bowel, or into the wall of muscle. It has not yet reached distant body parts or lymph nodes.

      Stage 2 - By this stage, the cancer has spread into the tissues or organs next to the bowel, or the outer wall of the bowel. It has still not reached any distant body parts or lymph nodes.

      Stage 3 - At stage three, the cancer has spread to the nearby lymph nodes, but not other distant body parts.

      Stage 4 - By this last stage, the cancer has spread to distant body parts, such as the lungs or liver. This is also known as advanced bowel cancer. 


Bowel Cancer Treatment


There are several treatment options for bowel cancer, and the type of treatment your doctor recommends will depend on the stage and location of the cancer, as well as the individual's overall health and preferences. Here are some common treatments for bowel cancer:


      Surgery - Surgery is the most common treatment for bowel cancer and involves removing the cancerous tissue from the body. Depending on the location and stage of the cancer, this surgery may involve removing a portion of the colon or rectum or the entire colon or rectum. In some cases, surgery may also involve removing nearby lymph nodes to prevent the cancer from spreading.

      Chemotherapy - Chemotherapy involves using powerful drugs to kill cancer cells throughout the body. You may be given chemotherapy before surgery to shrink the tumour, after surgery to kill any remaining cancer cells, or as the primary treatment for advanced or metastatic bowel cancer.

      Radiation therapy - Radiation therapy involves using high-energy radiation beams to kill cancer cells. Your healthcare provider may use radiation therapy before surgery to shrink the tumour or after surgery to kill any remaining cancer cells. In some cases, radiation therapy may also be used to relieve symptoms of advanced bowel cancer, such as pain or bleeding.

      Targeted therapy - Targeted therapy involves the use of drugs that target specific proteins or other molecules that contribute to the growth of cancer cells. You may use targeted therapy in combination with chemotherapy or as a standalone treatment for advanced or metastatic bowel cancer.

      Immunotherapy - Immunotherapy is a cancer treatment that harnesses the power of the immune system to fight cancer. Immunotherapy drugs help stimulate the immune system to recognise and attack cancer cells. Immunotherapy may be used to treat advanced or metastatic bowel cancer in some cases.


Living With Bowel Cancer


when a diagnoses of bowel cancer has been confirmed it can be overwhelming and challenging, However, there are several things you can do to take care of yourself and help you manage your symptoms of bowel cancer. Here are some tips to help you when living with bowel cancer:

      Follow a healthy diet - Eating a balanced diet can help manage bowel cancer symptoms and support your overall health. It's important to eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats. You may also need to make some dietary changes to manage your symptoms. Your doctor can help you develop a suitable nutrition plan for you.

      Stay physically active - Regular exercise can improve your symptoms and overall health. You should aim for at least 30 minutes of light to moderate intensity exercise at least 5 days a week. These activities can include walking, yoga, swimming or cycling.

      Manage your symptoms - Some symptoms of bowel cancer, such as bloating and bowel incontinence, you may be able to relieve and manage at home. For example, your pharmacist may be able to provide adequate medications to help relieve bloating and gas, or you can use pads for faecal incontinence to help control symptoms of bowel incontinence.

      Control stress levels - Living with bowel cancer can be stressful and emotionally challenging. Finding ways to manage this stress, such as practising mindfulness, deep breathing, or meditation, can help improve your mental and physical well-being.

      Attend follow-up appointments - Regular follow-up appointments with your doctor are important to monitor your bowel cancer and manage any symptoms or side effects of treatment. Don't hesitate to ask your doctor any questions you may have.

      Seek support - Living with bowel cancer can be isolating and overwhelming. So, it's important to seek support from your family, friends, or a support group to help you cope with the emotional and physical challenges of bowel cancer.


cancer patient drinking water

Where To Find Support


There are plenty of support resources out there for those with bowel cancer. If you need some advice on your diagnosis or treatment or just a friendly person to listen to you, there is plenty of help out there. Here are some charities that you can turn to:

        Bowel Cancer UK

        Macmillan Cancer Support

        Cancer Research UK

        Marie Curie



Bowel cancer is a serious condition that can significantly impact a person's health and quality of life. However, with early detection, proper treatment, and ongoing care, many people with bowel cancer are able to achieve remission and live a full and satisfying life. Taking care of yourself throughout your diagnosis and treatment can help you manage the physical and emotional challenges of living with bowel cancer, and keeping in contact with your doctor will ensure that you remain in tip-top condition.  




How long do bowel cancer patients live?

According to the latest statistics from Cancer Research UK, the five-year survival rate for bowel cancer patients in the UK is around 60%. However, the survival rate varies depending on the stage at diagnosis, with earlier-stage cancers having a higher survival rate. The survival rates are as follows:


        Stage 1: Around 97% of patients survive for five years or more after diagnosis

        Stage 2: Around 85-90% of patients survive for five years or more after diagnosis

        Stage 3: Around 65% of patients survive for five years or more after diagnosis

        Stage 4: Around 15-20% of patients survive for five years or more after diagnosis


However, survival rates are just estimates, and many factors can influence a patient's individual prognosis, including their age, overall health, and response to treatment. Patients should work closely with their healthcare team to develop a personalised treatment plan and receive ongoing care and support.


Does bowel cancer spread quickly?

The spread of bowel cancer can vary depending on the stage of cancer at diagnosis and the patient's age, health, and responsiveness to treatment. However, generally, bowel cancer can spread quickly, especially if it is not detected and treated early. Around 20% of people with bowel cancer are diagnosed at stage 4, when the cancer has already spread to other parts of the body.

At this point, the cancer is more likely to spread quickly and be harder to treat. 
However, when bowel cancer is diagnosed between stages 1-3, it is more likely to be contained within the bowel and have a lower risk of spreading. The earlier the cancer is detected and treated, the better the chances of successful treatment and survival.


Is bowel cancer classed as a terminal illness?

The term ‘terminal illness’ usually describes an illness that is incurable and is expected to result in the patient's death within a relatively short period of time. While bowel cancer can be a serious and life-threatening condition, it is not always terminal.

The prognosis for bowel cancer depends on various factors such as the stage of cancer at diagnosis, the age and overall health of the patient, and the effectiveness of treatment. In some cases, bowel cancer can be treated successfully, and patients can live for many years after their diagnosis. So, bowel cancer can not technically be classed as a terminal illness.


How long can you have bowel cancer without knowing?

Bowel cancer can develop slowly over several years before causing symptoms, which is why it's often referred to as a ‘silent killer.’ In some cases, people may have bowel cancer for several years without knowing it.


The length of time someone can have bowel cancer without knowing varies depending on factors such as the location of the cancer in the bowel and the type of cancer. On average, it takes about 10 years for a small precancerous polyp to develop into bowel cancer. However, some cancers can develop more quickly, and others can take longer.

Is bowel cancer hereditary?

Yes, bowel cancer can be hereditary. However, most cases of bowel cancer are not caused by inherited genetic factors.

In some families, there may be a genetic predisposition to bowel cancer that increases the risk of developing the disease. This is known as hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC), or Lynch syndrome. People with HNPCC have a higher risk of developing bowel and other types of cancer.


Another hereditary condition that can increase the risk of bowel cancer is familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP), which causes hundreds of small polyps to develop in the colon and rectum, increasing the risk of bowel cancer.