The object of this study was to explore the use of fecal skatole and indole and breath methane and hydrogen as metabolic markers of the anaerobic colonic flora in patients with unresected large bowel cancer or polyps. Patients with descending or sigmoid colon cancer were more likely to be breath methane excretors than control subjects, patients with proximal colon cancer, and patients with rectal cancer. Control subjects excreting breath methane excreted less fecal skatole than breath methane excretors in the following groups: patients with adenomatous polyps, all patients with colorectal cancer, patients with proximal colon cancer, patients with descending and sigmoid colon cancer, and patients with rectal cancer. These data suggest that fecal skatole excretion equal to or greater than 100 micrograms/g feces might be useful to discriminate colorectal cancer patients from control subjects. Twenty-nine percent (8 of 28) of the cancer patients had both "high" skatole levels and breath methane excretion compared with only 2% (1 of 41) of the control subjects (P less than 0.01).