Bowel cancer: Treatment options

An overview of the different options that are used to treat and manage bowel cancer. 

There are a few different options to help treat and manage bowel cancer. The main ones are surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, pain-relieving medications, or a combination of these. 

Your doctor and specialists will give you detailed information about each treatment option and help guide you to the most appropriate treatment plan for you. 

Surgery

The most common treatment option for bowel cancer is surgery, where the surgeon removes the tumour and sometimes the surrounding bowel tissue. 

Depending on what stage of bowel cancer you have, your surgeon may recommend an operation to remove: 

the cancerous lumps, polyps, from your large intestine (polypectomy)
part of the large intestine that is damaged or diseased (partial colectomy)
the whole large intestine (full colectomy) – this is rarely required. 

After bowel cancer surgery

In most cases, the bowel will be reconnected to the stomach (abdomen) so it will function as normal after the operation. 

Sometimes, however, this won’t be possible and you may need an external bag attached to your stomach to capture faecal waste. This is called a stoma or colostomy and can be removed after a few weeks, when your wound heals. In some rare cases the stoma or colostomy may be permanent. 

Surgery to remove bowel cancer is a major operation and you may need to stay in hospital for five to 10 days. Recovery may take four to six weeks. 
man in bed

Other treatments for bowel cancer

If the bowel cancer has spread to other parts of your body, it may not be possible to remove it completely with surgery. In these cases you may also need additional treatment or management with non-surgical methods such as radiation therapy and/or chemotherapy. 

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy uses medicines to destroy cancer cells. Some chemotherapy can be taken as a tablet, but it’s usually given as an injection. You may need one or more different medicines as part of your treatment.

Side effects of chemotherapy

Chemotherapy can cause side effects, including tiredness, feeling sick or vomiting, so you may feel quite ill during, and for a few weeks after, your treatment. Some people also lose some or all of their hair. Your hair will start to grow back after you finish your course of chemotherapy. 

Radiotherapy

Radiotherapy uses radiation to target and destroy cancer cells. It can involve a machine that sends radiation towards the cancer cells (external radiation therapy), or the radiation may be from an implant near the site of the cancer (internal radiation therapy) that’s removed at a later stage. 

The how and where usually depends on the type and stage of the bowel cancer. 

Side effects of radiotherapy

Radiotherapy can affect surrounding cells and can lead to side effects such as vomiting, diarrhoea and urinary problems. You’re also likely to feel quite tired over the course of your treatment. 

Bowel cancer survival rates

Over the last 20 years bowel cancer prognosis (the likely outcome of a condition) has improved greatly due to earlier detection, and improvements in treatment and surgical techniques. 

In fact, currently the five-year relative survival rate for all cases of bowel cancer in Australia is 66 per cent. This means that people diagnosed with bowel cancer have a 66 per cent chance of surviving for at least five years compared to people who have not been diagnosed with bowel cancer. 

Keep in mind, though, that a person’s prognosis will depend on individual factors such as their stage of cancer, age and general health at the time they’re diagnosed. So the five-year survival rate for people with stage I bowel cancer is much higher than those with stage IIII cancer that has spread to other parts of the body.

Looking after your emotional health and wellbeing

It’s normal to be shocked, upset and sad after being diagnosed with bowel cancer. You may be struggling to understand your condition and the different treatment options to you and worrying about what may happen in the future. 

Don’t be afraid to to reach out to your partner or a close friend and talk about your feelings and worries. It’s also a good idea to let your doctor know how you’re feeling as they can also help you with emotional health and wellbeing, including any signs of depression or anxiety. 

Remember you’re not alone. Looking after your emotional health and wellbeing not only can help you feel better, but it could have a positive impact on your recovery as well.
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