Bowel cancer

Bowel cancer, also known as colorectal cancer, develops from the inner lining of the bowel and is preceded by growths called polyps. These can become invasive cancer if undetected.

Bowel cancer is the second most common cancer in men and women in Australia. It is more common in people over the age of 50.

People at risk

The risk of developing bowel cancer is greater for any of the following people:

  • are aged 50 years or over
  • have a family history of bowel cancer or polyps
  • have an inflammatory bowel disease
  • have previously had adenomas, a type of polyp in the bowel.

You can reduce your risk by doing all of the following:

  • eating a healthy diet
  • regular exercise
  • drinking less alcohol 
  • not smoking.

Free test you can do at home

If you are over 50 years of age you can take a simple, free test at home.

For more information, go to bowel screening or the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program website.


You should go to a doctor if you notice any or all of the following:

  • blood in faeces
  • abnormal bowel habits
  • ongoing abdominal pain
  • constant tiredness.

Early detection tests

Your doctor may ask you to give a blood test, including iron levels, and give you a rectal examination.

If you live in the Top End 

Your doctor may refer you to Royal Darwin Hospital or to the visiting surgeon at the Katherine District Hospital or the Gove District Hospital for diagnostic tests such as a colonoscopy and possible tissue sampling, called a biopsy. 

Darwin Private Hospital and Darwin Day Surgery also perform bowel cancer diagnostic tests.

If you live in Central Australia 

Your doctor may refer you to Alice Springs Hospital for diagnostic tests such as a colonoscopy and possible tissue sampling, called a biopsy. 

Diagnosis tests in the NT

If bowel cancer is suspected, your health professional will discuss options with you and refer you to a surgeon or a gastroenterologist.

Your surgeon will conduct further tests to determine the spread of cancer, which may include a colonoscopy, CT scan, x-ray or MRI scan.

If you live in the Top End 

You can have your colonoscopy at the Royal Darwin Hospital or through the visiting surgeon at Katherine District Hospital or the Gove District Hospital.

Tests such as CT scans only happen at Royal Darwin Hospital and in Katherine. MRI scans are only available at Royal Darwin Hospital.

If you live in Central Australia

You will be tested at Alice Springs Hospital. If you need an MRI you will need to travel to another hospital in the NT or interstate.

Treatment in the NT

Your surgeon will first discuss your treatment with other specialists, then talk to you about your treatment options.

They will include one or more of the following:

  • surgery
  • radiotherapy
  • chemotherapy.

If you have to travel a long distance for specialist treatment you may be eligible for the Patient Assistance Travel Scheme


Removal of the cancer will benefit you most, specifically if you are in the early stages.


You may have radiotherapy if you have high-risk rectal cancer. Radiotherapy is not usually needed for colon cancers.

Length of treatment is usually five to six weeks, or two weeks for pre-surgery patients.

You will need to go to the Alan Walker Cancer Care Centre in Darwin. 


Chemotherapy is likely if you have higher risk cancer.

The treatment is usually four to six months. 

You will need to go to the Alan Walker Cancer Care Centre in Darwin, Alice Springs Hospital or travel interstate.

More information

For more information on investigations, diagnosis and treatment of prostate cancer, go to the outline of the cancer pathway for prostate cancer on the Cancer Council website.

For more information read cancer journeys - bowel or go to the Bowel Cancer Australia website.

Last updated: 12 May 2016

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