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Bowel cancer treatment

2-minute read

You may have a number of different health care professionals involved in your treatment and care.

The type of treatment you have will depend on whether or not the cancer has spread or is at risk of spreading. Although nearly all treatments have side effects, most can be effectively managed. Ask your doctor to explain what side effects to expect and how best to manage these.

Surgery is the usual treatment for bowel cancer. The cancer and surrounding tissue are removed to try to make sure no part of the cancer is left behind. Usually the bowel can be joined together again to restore normal function. If for some reason it cannot be rejoined, an artificial opening (colostomy) for body waste (poo) is made in the wall of the abdomen. A temporary colostomy can be reversed in a few weeks. Less than 5% of people need a permanent colostomy.

Bowel surgery is a major operation with an average hospital stay of 5 to 10 days followed by a recovery period of 4 to 6 weeks. For early bowel cancers there is usually no need for additional radiation therapy or chemotherapy. For those with larger cancer or whose cancer has spread to the lymph nodes, the best results are often achieved by combining surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy.

Chemotherapy uses anti-cancer drugs to help destroy cancer cells that may have spread to other areas of your body, but cannot be detected. Chemotherapy after surgery can be an effective treatment to reduce the chance of the cancer coming back. It is usually injected into a vein in the arm, but other methods are available.

Radiation therapy uses X-rays to destroy cancer cells. It is used prior to surgery for cancer in the rectum to reduce the cancer size to make surgery easier. It is also used to decrease the chance of cancer returning at the site. Timing of treatment is different for each individual.

Chemotherapy may be used in addition to radiation therapy.

Cancer Council Australia can provide more information on cancer treatments through their website at They also offer support for you and your loved ones via their helpline on 13 11 20.

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Last reviewed: May 2018

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