Treatment options for bowel, rectal and colon cancer include surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy, targeted therapy and clinical trials.

About treatment for bowel cancer

Treatments used for bowel cancer include surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy and sometimes targeted therapy. Often, a combination of treatments is used. When chemotherapy and radiotherapy are given together, it is called chemoradiation.

What treatment you have depends on the stage of the cancer and where it is in the bowel. There are different types of surgery for rectal and colon cancer. The treatment you have will also depend on your general health and preferences.

It is important that you have the chance to discuss treatments with your doctor. This will help you understand why a particular treatment plan has been suggested, and how the treatment may affect you.

Surgery

Surgery to remove the cancer is one of the main treatments for bowel cancer.

Surgery to remove rectal cancer

There are different types of surgery to remove rectal cancer:

  • Local resection

    Very small, stage 1 rectal cancers can sometimes be removed using a local resection. This is a small operation to remove the cancer and some healthy tissue surrounding it.

  • Total mesorectal excision

    Total mesorectal excision (TME) is the most commonly used operation to remove rectal cancer. The surgeon removes the part of the rectum that contains cancer, as well as some healthy bowel on either side.

Surgery to remove colon cancer

Surgery is the most common treatment for colon cancer. There are different techniques and types of operation that can be used:

  • Local resection 

    Very early-stage colon cancers can sometimes be removed using an operation called a local resection. During this operation, the surgeon uses a colonoscope to remove the cancer from the lining of the bowel.

  • Removing all or part of the colon 

    If you have colon cancer, you may have an operation to remove part or all of the colon. This is called a colectomy. Removing half of the colon is called a hemi-colectomy. Depending on where the cancer is, either the left side or the right side may be removed.

Other reasons for surgery

Sometimes, surgery is used to help with symptoms rather than cure the cancer. This may be if the cancer is causing a blockage in the bowel.

Occasionally, surgery may be used to remove cancer that has spread to the liver or lungs. This is called secondary or advanced cancer. We have more information about secondary liver cancersecondary lung cancer and their treatments.

Radiotherapy

If you have rectal cancer you may be given radiotherapy or chemoradiation before or after surgery. These treatments help to reduce the risk of the cancer coming back in the rectum, or in the tissues close to it.

Radiotherapy is not commonly used to treat cancer in the colon.

Radiotherapy is also sometimes used to relieve symptoms, such as pain or bleeding. This is called palliative radiotherapy.

Chemotherapy

Sometimes, chemotherapy is given after surgery to reduce the risk of the cancer coming back. This is called adjuvant chemotherapy. Chemotherapy is often given along with radiotherapy (chemoradiation) to treat rectal cancer.

If cancer has spread to the liver or lungs, chemotherapy may be the main treatment. It is given to shrink the cancer and to control it for as long as possible. Some people have chemotherapy to shrink the cancer in the liver or lungs before having an operation to remove it.

Targeted therapies

Targeted therapies are sometimes used on their own or in combination with chemotherapy to control bowel cancer that has spread.

Clinical trials

You may be offered treatment as part of a clinical trial.

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