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Types of bowel cancer

Bowel cancer can start in the large bowel (colon) or the back passage (rectum). It is also known as colorectal cancer. Bowel cancer is divided into different types depending on where it starts in the bowel, and the type of cell that it starts in. Knowing this helps your doctor decide which treatment you need. 

The bowel

The bowel makes up a part of the digestive system. It’s split into the small and large bowel:

  • cancer of the small bowel is called small bowel cancer
  • cancer of the large bowel is called colon cancer
  • cancer of the back passage is called rectal cancer
  • cancer of the bowel opening is called anal cancer

This section is about colon and rectal cancer. We have separate sections about anal cancer and small bowel cancer.

Types of bowel cancer

Your type of cancer depends on what type of cell it starts in.

Adenocarcinoma 

Adenocarcinomas start in the gland cells in the lining of the bowel wall. The gland cells normally produce mucus. This is a slimy substance that makes it easier for the poo (also called faeces or stool) to pass through the bowel. Adenocarcinoma is the most common type of bowel cancer. 

There are 2 rare types of adenocarcinoma:

  • mucinous tumours 
  • signet ring tumours 

They are treated in the same way as the most common types of adenocarcinoma of the bowel.

Rare types of bowel cancer

Squamous cell tumours 

Squamous cells are the skin cells that make up the bowel lining, together with the gland cells. They are treated in the same way as cancer of the anus.

Carcinoid tumours 

Carcinoid is a type of slow growing tumour called a neuroendocrine tumour. They grow in hormone producing tissue, usually in the digestive system. 

Carcinoid is treated differently to the most common types of bowel cancer. 

Sarcomas 

Sarcomas are cancers of the supporting cells of the body, such as bone or muscle. Most sarcomas in the bowel are called leiomyosarcomas. This means they are sarcomas that started in smooth muscle. 

Sarcomas are treated differently to adenocarcinomas of the bowel. 

Lymphomas 

Lymphomas are cancers of the lymphatic system. They are treated very differently to other bowel cancers. 

Melanoma 

Melanoma is a type of skin cancer. Melanoma can begin in the back passage (rectum). 

Last reviewed: 
17 Aug 2018
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    D Raghavan and others
    Wiley Blackwell, 2012. 

  • Cancer and its management (7th edition)
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  • Cancer principles and practice of oncology (10th edition)
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    Wolters Kluwer Health, 2015

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