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What are the symptoms?

In its early stages, bowel cancer may have no symptoms. This is why screening is important to increase the chance of an early diagnosis. However, many people with bowel cancer do experience symptoms. These can include:

  • blood in the stools or on the toilet paper
  • a change in bowel habit, such as diarrhoea, constipation or smaller, more frequent bowel movements
  • a change in appearance or consistency of bowel movements (e.g. narrower stools or mucus in stools)
  • a feeling of fullness or bloating in the abdomen or a strange sensation in the rectum, often during a bowel movement
  • feeling that the bowel hasn’t emptied completely
  • unexplained weight loss
  • weakness or fatigue
  • rectal or anal pain
  • a lump in the rectum or anus
  • abdominal pain or swelling
  • a low red blood cell count (anaemia), which can cause tiredness and weakness
  • rarely, a blockage in the bowel.

Not everyone with these symptoms has bowel cancer. Other conditions, such as haemorrhoids, diverticulitis (inflammation of pouches in the bowel wall) or an anal fissure (cracks in the skin lining the anus), can also cause these changes. Changes in bowel function are common and often do not indicate a serious problem. However, any amount of bleeding is not normal and you should see your doctor for a check-up.

Which health professionals will I see?

Your general practitioner (GP) will arrange the first tests to assess your symptoms, or further tests if you have had a positive screening test). If these tests do not rule out cancer, you will usually be referred to a specialist, such as a colorectal surgeon or a gastroenterologist. The specialist will arrange further tests. If bowel cancer is diagnosed, the specialist will consider treatment options. Often these will be discussed with other health professionals at what is known as a multidisciplinary team (MDT) meeting. During and after treatment, you may see a range of health professionals who specialise in different aspects of your care.

GPassists with treatment decisions; provides ongoing care in partnership with specialists
colorectal surgeondiagnoses bowel cancer and performs bowel surgery
gastroenterologistdiagnoses and treats disorders of the digestive system, including bowel cancer; may perform endoscopy
medical oncologisttreats cancer with drug therapies such as chemotherapy, targeted therapy and immunotherapy (systemic treatment)
radiation oncologisttreats cancer by prescribing and overseeing a course of radiation therapy
cancer care coordinator coordinates your care, liaises with MDT members, and supports you and your family throughout treatment; may be a clinical nurse consultant (CNC) or colorectal cancer nurse
operating room staffinclude anaesthetists, technicians and nurses who prepare you for surgery and care for you during the operation and recovery
nurseadministers drugs and provides care, information and support throughout treatment
stomal therapy nurseprovides information about surgery and can support you to adjust to life with a temporary or permanent stoma
dietitianrecommends an eating plan to follow while you are in treatment and recovery
genetic counsellorprovides advice for people with a strong family history of bowel cancer or with a genetic condition linked to bowel cancer
social workerlinks you to support services and helps you with emotional, practical or financial issues
physiotherapist, occupational therapistassist with physical and practical problems, including restoring movement and mobility after treatment, and recommending aids and equipment
counsellor, psychologisthelp you manage your emotional response to diagnosis and treatment

This information is reviewed by

This information was last reviewed January 2019 by the following expert content reviewers: A/Prof Craig Lynch, Colorectal Surgeon, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Prof Tim Price, Medical Oncologist, The Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Adelaide, and Clinical Professor, Faculty of Medicine, The University of Adelaide, SA; Department of Dietetics, Liverpool Hospital, NSW; Dr Hooi Ee, Gastroenterologist, Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, WA; Dr Debra Furniss, Radiation Oncologist, Genesis CancerCare, QLD; Jocelyn Head, Consumer; Jackie Johnston, Palliative Care and Stomal Therapy Clinical Nurse Consultant, St Vincent’s Private Hospital, NSW; Zeinah Keen, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council NSW; Dr Elizabeth Murphy, Head, Colorectal Surgical Unit, Lyell McEwin Hospital, SA.