Symptoms and diagnosing small bowel cancer

Small bowel cancer symptoms include:

  • pain or lump in your tummy (abdomen)
  • weight loss
  • feeling and being sick
  • diarrhoea
  • tiredness
  • dark black poo, due to bleeding in the small bowel
  • blockage in the bowel
  • a low number of red blood cells (anaemia) due to bleeding

The symptoms of small bowel cancer can be vague. They can also be symptoms of other conditions, such as irritable bowel disease or inflammatory bowel disease but it’s important to see your doctor.

It can be difficult to diagnose small bowel cancer as the small bowel is in the middle part of the digestive tract, so it can be hard for your doctor to examine. Taking pictures, for example a CT scan of the small bowel can be difficult.

Your doctor will arrange for you to have some tests, if you have symptoms that suggest small bowel cancer. The tests will help the doctor see any lump or growth in the bowel. Often doctors won’t be able to make a diagnosis until you have surgery to remove a lump.

Tests you might have

Tests you might have include:

Barium x-ray

You drink a white liquid called barium (that shows up on x-rays) and then have x-rays to see how it moves through your bowel.

Blood tests

You have these to check for a low red cell count (anaemia) and see how well your liver is working. And to check the amount of different substances in your blood. The levels of certain substances can be abnormal with some cancers.


You might have an endoscopy. This involves a specialist doctor looking at your small bowel with a camera. They will put a tube with a camera on the end down your mouth and throat. 

CT scan

A CT scan can show where the cancer is and whether there are signs that the cancer has spread to anywhere else in the body.

Capsule endoscopy

You swallow a small capsule, which contains a camera and light source and takes pictures of the bowel as it travels through. The capsule is the size of a large pill.

Double balloon enteroscopy

A DBE is a type of endoscopy. You’ll usually have a capsule endoscopy first and then a DBE as a follow up.

An endoscopist (a specially trained healthcare professional) inserts a small flexible tube, through the mouth or the back passage (rectum). It is about the size of a pencil and has 2 small balloons on it. The tube is called a double balloon enteroscope.

This allows them to examine the small bowel and take a biopsy if necessary.


MRI stands for magnetic resonance imaging. It produces pictures from angles all around the body and shows up soft tissues very clearly.


Ultrasound scans use high frequency sound waves to build up a picture of the inside of the body.

The sound waves bounce off the organs inside your body, and the microphone picks them up. The microphone links to a computer that turns the sound waves into a picture on the screen.

Treating small bowel cancer

Treatment for small bowel cancer depends on the type of cancer, and where it is in the small bowel.

  • Small Bowel Adenocarcinoma: From Molecular Insights to Clinical Management
    F Gelsomino and others
    Current Oncology, 2022. Volume 29, Issue 2, Pages 1223-1236

  • Cancer and its management (7th edition)
    J Tobias and D Hochhauser
    Wiley Blackwell, 2015

  • Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology (11th edition)
    VT DeVita, TS Lawrence, SA Rosenberg
    Wolters Kluwer, 2019

Last reviewed: 
31 Mar 2022
Next review due: 
31 Mar 2025

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