Is Bowel Leakage A Sign Of Cancer?

World Cancer Day ; Bowel Cancer

Bowel incontinence could be a warning sign of serious diseases e.g., cancer


Bowel leakage (faecal incontinence) is the total or partial loss of control on the bowel movements in rectum. The faeces will continue to leak spontaneously from your rectum, severely compromising your self esteem and quality of life. Felt embarrassed? Let me surprise you by the fact that it is a common condition. According to NHS, 0.5-1%of British adults have this problem.

What causes it? Is it linked to colorectal cancer? These questions are often asked by elderly people. I know that social issues and embarrassment will not allow most of the patients to speak. Let me answer these questions for you.

How your body controls the bowel movements?

First you should know how the flow of bowel is controlled. Your rectum has a ring of muscles the 'splinters'. These muscles are present in the form of a ring. When they contract, the hole between the ring closes. When they expand, the opposite happens. Any condition weakening or damaging these anal sphincter muscles can hinder your ability to control bowel flow.

If it is coupled with any factor that stimulate bowel movements, the results will be even more adverse.

A baby has no control over these sphincters until 24-30 months of age but gradually learns to control bowel movements.

What are the causes of faecal leakage?

A number of factors can cause you to lose control over these muscles. Most people tend to ignore it as a sign of ageing, but it is not that simple. It could be a sign of different health conditions including cancer. A list of causes can be responsible e.g.,

Chronic diarrhoea and constipation

A history of chronic diarrhoea or constipation can damage or weaken the sphincter muscles leading to loss of control over bowel movement.

Neurological issues

Any condition that can damage the local nerves e.g., stroke, diabetes etc. can cause bowel incontinence.

Surgical procedures

Any surgical procedure damaging the local nerves and muscles e.g., c-section, removal of haemorrhoids etc. can damage the sphincter muscles.

Inflammatory diseases

Various inflammatory diseases of the digestive tract can also cause faecal incontinence. Some important diseases are;

  • Inflammatory bowel disease

  • Crohn's disease

  • Irritable bowel syndrome

  • Severe and chronic piles

Paralysis of local muscles

Paralysis can cause irreversible damage to the local nerves. This nerve damage can diminish your bowel control ability.

Fits of epilepsy


An attack of epilepsy can also cause your bowel movements to go out of control.

Age related weakness of muscles

As you grow older, your muscles grow weaker and weaker. The weakness of sphincter muscles of rectum will lead to faecal incontinence. According to the NHS, as many as 15% adults around the age of 85 have faecal incontinence. The percentage is even higher (10-60%) in older people who are living in nursing homes.

Watery stools

Watery stools can also leak from the sphincters even if they are in a good condition. Watery stool is often a feature of viral diarrhoea.

Sometimes, the cause can may be simple and may involve two or more factors.

Is faecal incontinence related to bowel cancer?

Bowel cancer (also called colorectal cancer) is the 4th major cancer in the UK with 41,000 new cases diagnosed each year. According to Cancer Research UK, it causes 16,8000 annual deaths.

Often, colon and rectal cancers exhibit a number of symptoms and one of them could be bowel incontinence.

How can colorectal cancer cause bowel incontinence?

Here are some of the reasons how your bowel leakage can be due to colorectal cancers.

The local clump can disturb the sphincters

The colon and rectal cancer is associated with the formation of a clump of cells in the colon and rectum. This clump combined with the local inflammation can reduce the efficacy of local sphincters and a loss of control over the bowel flow; particularly during stage iv colorectal cancer, the loss of control over the bowel movements becomes more pronounced.

Loose stools


Most of the water from the faeces is absorbed in the large bowel. The inflammation and local obstruction can hinder the absorption of water from the large bowel. The resulting loose stools can be difficult to control even with good sphincters.

Radiation therapy and faecal incontinence

The rectal and colon cancer treatment can also cause faecal incontinence. For example, radiation therapy and rectal surgery can damage the local nerves and muscles.

A 2007 study published in the British Journal of Surgery found that surgical treatment of rectal cancers can cause faecal incontinence. Faecal incontinence was reported by 61.5% of the patients after the surgery who had also received radiation therapy before the operation. The incidence was however lower by 38.8% in the people who had undergone operation without any radiation therapy.

Another study published in the PLOS MEDICINE in 2008 also noted that different treatment options available for rectal cancer increase the risk of faecal and urinary incontinence.

A study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology also found that radiation therapy for colorectal significantly increases the risk of faecal incontinence. The risk in irradiated people was 62% as compared to 38% in non-irradiated people.

Changing bowel habits

Your bowel habits are significantly changed in colorectal cancers. The defecation becomes increasingly painful. The changing habits also reduce your ability to control bowel movements.

Final words

Bowel cancer could be a cause of faecal incontinence, but it is not the sole cause. The cancer however increases various risk factors associated with this condition. Moreover, the treatment options to kill the cancer cells can also worsen the situation. During a bowel surgery, the job of colon and rectal surgeons becomes very difficult as a slight mistake can endanger your control over the sphincters.

You should look for other causes of bowel leakage. If other causes are absent, your leakage is likely due to cancer and you should go for medical check up.

Given that the bowel incontinence treatment is not easy, let's hope that you will not suffer from this situation.

To learn more about Incontinence, see our information page here

For a full range of medications, visit our Welzo Online Pharmacy Page. For more details click here.

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