Bowel cancer facts

  • 1 in 18 New Zealanders are likely to develop bowel cancer in their lifetime.

  • Bowel cancer is the second most common cause of cancer related deaths in New Zealand (after lung cancer).

  • Bowel cancer kills around 24 New Zealanders each week.

  • More than 2,800 New Zealanders are diagnosed every year.

  • While bowel cancer kills more New Zealanders each year than breast cancer or prostate cancer, early detection through screening can vastly improve survival rates.

  • If caught in time, 75% of bowel cancer cases can be cured.


What is bowel cancer?

The majority of bowel cancers develop from tiny growths inside the large bowel (colon) or rectum.  It is referred to as a silent killer as often there are no symptoms until it has reached an advanced stage.  This is why early detection is so important.

Most bowel cancers make their presence known early by leaking small (invisible) amounts of blood into the bowel.  This is then passed into the faeces.  This bleeding often only becomes visible to the naked eye when the cancer becomes more advanced.

Anatomy of the lower digestive system. 


Bowel cancer risk

Both men and women are at risk of developing bowel cancer.

The risk is greater for -

  • People aged 50 and older (risk increases over the age of 40 and significantly over the age of 50)

  • People with a personal or family history of bowel cancer or polyps

  • People with certain chronic bowel diseases (such as Crohn’s Disease and Ulcerative Colitis).



Signs and symptoms

Bowel cancer can develop with few, if any, early warning signs.  If symptoms of the disease are present, these may include -

  • Blood in or on the stool (faeces) – please note polyps and cancers may bleed intermittently

  • A recent and persistent change in bowel habit

  • A lump or mass in the tummy

  • Persistent abdominal pain

  • Unexplained tiredness

If you have any of these symptoms, please discuss them with your GP. 

REMEMBER: However old you are, you should never be told that you are too young to have bowel cancer.  Whilst bowel cancer is more common in people aged 50+, bowel cancer increasingly affects all age groups.

If you have higher-risk symptoms, do not accept 'you're too young to have bowel cancer' as an explanation for your symptoms - ask your doctor to be referred for further investigations.



How do I keep a healthy bowel

A healthy diet and lifestyle play an important role in bowel health.

  • A diet high in fibre and low in fat is recommended.  Eat a nutritious diet including five serves of vegetables and two serves of fruits per day

  • Maintain a healthy body weight

  • Participate in moderate to vigorous levels of physical activity for 30 to 60 minutes per day (such as walking for at least 30 minutes on most days of the week)

  • Do not smoke.

  • Avoid or limit alcohol consumption to no more than two standard drinks per day for men and one standard drink per day for women.



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Bowel Screening Pilot

Please note: The New Zealand Government is gradually phasing in a National Bowel Screening Program to be completed by 2021. New Zealander’s aged 60 to 74 years who are eligible to for publicly funded health care will receive an invitation to take part in the screening program when it becomes available in their DHB. Eligible New Zealanders will receive a free faecal immunochemical test (FIT) in the mail and are encouraged to complete and return it. For information regarding start dates of each phase please visit or phone 0800 924 432.

Alternatively, anyone can take part in an annual screening by purchasing a BowelScreen Aotearoa™ kit at their local participating pharmacy.