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Understanding your risk

While bowel cancer is common among both women and men, the risk of developing the cancer is heightened after the age of 50. 

Like other cancers, your risk depends on many variables, including:

  • Family history of colorectal diseases such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease
  • Lifestyle behavior (e.g. smoking)
  • General health
  • Diets high in fat

Optum’s oncology department offers comprehensive cancer risk assessments and hereditary cancer genetics evaluation programs to help you identify your risk.


Most people do not notice symptoms of bowel cancer at first, so tests and screenings, especially after the age of 50, are very important.

Those who do experience symptoms may deal with the following:

  • Changes in bowel movements including diarrhea or constipation
  • Blood in your stool, or bleeding with no source such as a fissures or soreness
  • Pain or cramps in your stomach, or a bloated feeling
  • Vomiting and nausea
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Constant fatigue

If you are experiencing any, or a combination, of the above symptoms, contact your physician today to set up a screening.

Diagnosing bowel cancer

Because this type of cancer can spread quickly, it’s important to make sure that you are taking proactive measures to prevent the cancer or discover it early. 

The tests that are ordered for diagnosis will depend on your physician or surgeon, but very often include image guided biopsies such as a colonoscopy or colonography. This will allow the doctor to evaluate all your symptoms and determine what the root cause is.

Stages of bowel cancer

The classification of the severity of bowel cancer will depend on the stage that it has reached at that point in time. There are four main stages that are determined based on the area to which the cancer has spread.

  • Stage 1: The cancer has grown past the mucosa, or inner layer of the colon, or the next layer, called the submucosa.
  • Stage 2: The cancer has not reached the lymph nodes, but has grown to the outer layer of the colon, potentially to the membrane that holds the abdominal organs in place, or the nearby organs or structures.
  • Stage 3: The cancer has grown through the muscle layers and is found in the nearby lymph nodes, potentially multiple, but has not spread to a distant node or organ.
  • Stage 4: The cancer has spread to one or more distant sites, such as the liver or lungs.


The type of treatment you will receive will heavily depend on the stage and severity of the cancer. However, most often the treatments will be:

  • Colectomy: a common surgery for all stages to remove the affected area of the bowel
  • Sphincter saving surgery: a procedure that is preferred for rectal cancer to help retain normal bowel function.
  • Interventional radiology: such as radiofrequency ablation, may be recommended to kill the cancer cells to prevent any sort of spreading
  • Chemotherapy: chemicals administered in pill or IV form to kill and slow the growth of cancer cells
  • Radiation therapy: high-powered beams of energy, such as X-rays and protons, that are used to kill and slow the growth of cancer cells

Medical care and help

To find a bowel/colorectal oncologist near you, visit our providers page.

Click here to learn more about Optum’s minimally invasive robotic assisted surgery options.

Contact us if you have any questions.