If you have bowel cancer

Being told you have bowel cancer will come as devastating news. Be reassured though that progress with research into the improvement of treatment and support mechanisms for cancer is getting better all the time. Plenty of people pull through bowel cancer and go on to make a full recovery through some of the treatment that’s available. What’s more, if you live in the West Country and are diagnosed with bowel cancer, you happen to be in one of the best places to deal with it. 

Treatment

Multi-disciplinary team

You will be looked after by a team of health professionals who will meet regularly as a team known as a multi-disciplinary team (MDT). The team would likely include: a specialist cancer surgeon, an oncologist (a radiotherapy and chemotherapy specialist), a radiologist, pathologist, radiographer and a specialist nurse. You may also have access to a physiotherapist, dietitian, occupational therapist, and clinical psychology support.

The team will meet to make a decision on the most suitable treatment for you in advance of the treatment to decide on the best course of treatment - be it surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy or in some cases biological therapy.

It may be that you are offered more than one of these treatments and they will meet with you to discuss possible options with you based on:

  • The type and size of the cancer
  • Your general health
  • Whether the cancer has spread to other parts of your body
  • What grade it is

Surgery

The most common form of treatment and usually combined with radiotherapy or chemotherapy to make it easier to remove the cancer with aim to make a full recovery. If the cancer is too developed, the MDT may suggest that you don’t have surgery and that you concentrate on other forms of treatment.

Chemotherapy

Using drugs to fight the cancer is also another common form of treatment and normally combined with surgery. This could be in the form of drugs taken as an injection, drip or orally as tablets.

Chemotherapy (Chemo) is usually given as a course of treatment made up of several cycles and normally lasts up to six months. Adjuvant chemotherapy would take place normally a few weeks after surgery if the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes or there is a greater risk of it coming back.

Common side effects of chemotherapy can be

  • Diarrhoea
  • Increased risk of infection
  • A sore mouth
  • Nausea and vomiting

Radiotherapy

Radiotherapy is used as a possible treatment for rectal cancer where there is a risk of it returning and not normally for bowel cancer except where it may have spread to other parts of the body. It can be used in combination with surgery or chemotherapy (known as chemoradiation) or you might be offered a short course of five sessions before surgery if there is a chance of the cancer returning in the same place.

There are two ways of having radiotherapy - internally and externally. External uses high energy X-ray beams to kill cancers. International radiation (Brachytherapy) is when a source of radiation is placed inside the rectum before surgery.

Palliative radiotherapy is a term for anyone having the treatment where the condition cannot be cured and it would be used to relieve symptoms. 

Common side effects of radiotherapy can be:

  • Sore skin
  • Bowel problems
  • Bladder problems
  • Sexual problems
  • Tiredness
  • Difficulty sleeping.

Biological therapy

Biological therapy involves the use of living organisms, substances derived from living organisms, or laboratory-produced versions of such substances to treat disease by acting on processes in cells. Sometimes vaccines or bacteria are used to stimulate the body's immune system to act against cancer cells. Many types of biological therapies for cancer are still experimental but it can be an effective way of treating cancer.