What is small bowel cancer?
What is small bowel cancer?
Small bowel cancer, also known as small intestine cancer. It is a rare type of cancer that usually starts with uncontrolled growth and multiplication of abnormal cells in the small intestine. Over time, these abnormal cells can develop into a larger mass called a tumour.1
The small bowel (also known as the small intestine), is part of the body’s digestive system. It is a long tube (about 5 metres long) that carries digested food between your stomach and your large intestine (colon).1,2
- Breaking down food (digestion) from the stomach
- Allows proteins, fatty acids, sugars, vitamins and minerals to pass from food into bloodstream
- Transfers waste into the large bowel.
The types of small bowel cancer may include:1
- Starts in the epithelial cells (cells that release mucus) lining the inside of the small bowel
- Begin in the connective tissue (supports and connect the organs and structures of the body)
- Neuroendocrine (carcinoid) tumours (NETs)
- Develop in neuroendocrine cells inside the small bowel
- Neuroendocrine cells are in the nerves and glands within the small bowel and are responsible for making hormones, which are released into the bloodstream as part of normal body functioning
- Form in lymph tissue within the small bowel
- Lymph tissue is part of the body’s immune system
The cause of small bowel cancer isn't known. There are several factors that may increase the risk of developing small bowel cancer that can include:1
- Genetic factors
- There are some rare, inherited diseases that may put people at a higher risk of developing small bowel cancer
- Some small bowel cancers may be associated with autoimmune diseases such as Crohn’s disease and coeliac disease
- Eating large amounts of animal fat and protein, such as processed meat and red meat
Small bowel cancer may present with no symptoms or with symptoms that may be similar in other conditions. This can make it difficult to diagnose.1
Symptoms may include:1
- Blood in stool or on the toilet paper
- Unexplained weight loss
- A lump in the abdomen
- Abdominal pain
- Nausea and vomiting
- Change in bowel habits including diarrhoea or constipation,
- Tiredness and weakness, caused by a low red blood cell count (anaemia)
- Yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice).
If you experience any of these symptoms or have concerns, please contact your general practitioner (GP).
Diagnosing small bowel cancer
A range of tests may be performed to analyse symptoms, to diagnose small bowel cancer. Following a physical examination, further tests may include:1
- Blood tests
- Are performed with the aim to measure white blood cells, red blood cells, platelets, plus a liver function test may be undertaken to measure chemicals in your liver. Sometimes a chromogranin A (CgA) blood test is performed as a way to help diagnose a carcinoid or other neuroendocrine tumour
- This where a tube with a camera on the end is used to look down your throat and into your stomach
- You will be sedated during an endoscopy
- Capsule endoscopy
- This is where you swallow as small capsule
- Within the capsule is a very small camera that will take images of your digestive system
- The camera will be passed in your stools after roughly 24 hours
- Imaging scans
- These may include a computed tomography (CT) scan, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan, positron emission tomography (PET) scan or a Barium X-ray.
- If your doctor sees anything unusual or abnormal, they may remove a small sample for closer examination
The treatment options recommended for small bowel cancer will usually depend upon a few different factors including: the type of small bowel cancer you have, your general health, age and whether or not the cancer has spread to other parts of the body. Your doctor will also discuss with you your preferences for treatment.1
Your doctors will discuss the treatment options with you. They may include:1
- Surgery is usually used to treat early-stage small bowel cancer
- Your doctor will discuss with you the type of surgery you will have, depending on the location and stage of the tumour
- Chemotherapy is an approach to cancer therapy which involves the administration of medicine, usually orally or by injection, which is intended to kill cancer cells or minimise their growth and spread
- Chemotherapy can be used in conjunction with other cancer treatments
- Radiation therapy
- Radiation therapy uses high energy rays to treat cancer and can be used at all stages of small bowel cancer
- Immunotherapy is a type of treatment that is intended to help your own immune system fight cancer
- There are different types of immunotherapy for cancer that work in different ways
Potential side effects
Side effects of cancer treatment
All cancer treatments may have side effects. The type and severity of side effects will vary between individuals. You can ask your doctor for detailed information about the side effects which you may experience with any treatment recommended for you.
Recommendations to help you stay well during treatment1,3,4
- Changes to digestion, as well as bowel habits during treatment can be common
- Eating healthy food can help with both treatment and managing side effects
- Eating small but frequent meals instead of three big meals
- A dietitian may help to give you advice on the types of foods to include or remove from your diet
- Drink lots of water
- Reach out to support groups and others who have had cancer treatment
- Speak to your doctor about incorporating some gentle exercise into your weekly routine
- It is important to acknowledge when you are fatigued and rest when you need to
- Ask for and accept help from family, friends and neighbours
- Be open with employers about your treatment and discuss flexible working options if you need them
Treatment with GenesisCare
Learn more about patient care at GenesisCare
A cancer diagnosis can be life changing. You may experience a wave of emotions. It’s natural to feel disbelief, anxiety, sadness, anger and loneliness.1
Our care team aims to know your name and to get to know who you are as a person. Your nursing team and oncology team are here to support you before, during and after your cancer treatment. We are here to guide you and to help get the support you need which may include a psychologist, exercise physiologist, physiotherapist, and dietitian.
If you have any enquiries about our centres or services, please contact your local centre team. View a list of our centres here.
Other helpful services
Further bowel cancer information, resources, and support services are available to help assist you during your cancer journey. These may include:
T: 13 11 20
GI Cancer Institute
T: 1300 666769
Australian Cancer Research Foundation
T: 02 9223 7833
In Australia, we have more than 40 oncology centres in metro and regional Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, and Western Australia.
Our experienced, specialised doctors offer bespoke, dedicated care aiming to provide the best possible clinical outcomes.
This website is provided for information purposes only. Nothing on this website is intended to be used as medical advice or, to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. It should not be used as a substitute for your own health professional's advice.
Any medical procedure or treatment involving the use of radiation carries risks, including skin irritation and associated pain. Before proceeding with treatment, you should discuss the risks and benefits of the treatment with an appropriately qualified health practitioner. Individual treatment outcomes and experiences will vary.
- Cancer Council. Understanding Small Bowel Cancer. A guide for people affected by cancer. Available at: https://www.cancercouncil.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Understanding-Small-Bowel-Cancer-2021.pdf (accessed February 2024).
- Health Direct. Digestive system. Available at: https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/digestive-system (accessed February 2024).
- Cancer Council. Understanding Bowel Cancer. Available at: https://www.cancercouncil.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2023/03/Understanding-Bowel-Cancer-2023.pdf (accessed February 2024)
- Cancer Council. Cancer, Work and You. Available at: https://www.cancercouncil.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2023/06/Cancer-Work-and-You-2023.pdf (accessed February 2024).