AIMS Two previous studies (1966-1971 and 1979-1983) of patients with colorectal cancer (CRC) have been reported from our hospital. A large increase in the incidence of CRC was noted, and an improvement in Dukes' staging of tumours at treatment. We report a series of patients admitted with newly diagnosed CRC to evaluate this trend further. METHODS A prospective study was made of all patients with newly diagnosed CRC admitted to the John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford in 1995. Means of diagnosis and Dukes' staging were recorded. RESULTS In 1 year 177 patients were admitted with newly diagnosed CRC. Previous studies had shown an increase from 52.8 to 103.4 patients per year. The number of patients diagnosed by colonoscopy doubled from 19.4% in 1979-1983 to 41% in 1995. No significant change in the proportion of patients with Dukes' A or B tumours was found. CONCLUSION The number of patients treated annually with CRC in a stable population has more than trebled in the last 3 decades. A real increase in the incidence of CRC is likely as this rise cannot be explained solely by changing referral patterns or an ageing community. There are no significant changes in presentation patterns despite the availability of colonoscopy since 1975.