Cancer of the colon, rectum or bowel


Cancer of the colon, rectum or bowel
Cancer of the colon, rectum or bowel

Bowel cancer is a general term for cancer that begins in the large bowel. Depending on where the cancer starts, bowel cancer is sometimes called colon or rectal cancer.

Bowel cancer is one of the most common types of cancer diagnosed in the UK. Most people diagnosed with it are over the age of 60.

Symptoms of bowel cancer

The three main symptoms of bowel cancer are:

  • persistent blood in the stools – that happens for no obvious reason or is associated with a change in bowel habit
  • a persistent change in your bowel habit – which is usually having to poo more and your poo may also become more runny
  • persistent lower abdominal (tummy) pain, bloating or discomfort – that's always caused by eating and may be associated with loss of appetite or significant unintentional weight loss

Most people with these symptoms do not have bowel cancer. Other health problems can cause similar symptoms. For example:

  • blood in the poo when associated with pain or soreness is more often caused by piles (haemorrhoids)
  • a change in bowel habit or abdominal pain is usually caused by something you've eaten
  • a change in bowel habit to going less often, with harder poo, is not usually caused by any serious condition – it may be worth trying laxatives before seeing your GP

These symptoms should be taken more seriously as you get older and when they persist despite simple treatments.

When to get medical advice

See your GP if you have one or more of the symptoms of bowel cancer and they have persisted for more than three weeks.

Your GP may decide to:

  • examine your tummy and bottom to make sure you have no lumps
  • arrange for a simple blood test to check for iron deficiency anaemia – this can show whether there's any bleeding from your bowel that you haven't been aware of
  • arrange for you to have a simple test in hospital to make sure there's no serious cause of your symptoms

Make sure you see your GP if your symptoms persist or keep coming back after stopping treatment, regardless of their severity or your age. You'll probably be referred to hospital.

Causes of bowel cancer

The exact cause of bowel cancer is not known, but there are a number of things that can increase your risk, including:

  • age – almost 9 in 10 people with bowel cancer are aged 60 or over
  • diet – a diet high in red or processed meats and low in fibre can increase your risk
  • weight – bowel cancer is more common in overweight or obese people
  • exercise – being inactive increases your risk of getting bowel cancer
  • alcohol – drinking alcohol might increase your risk of getting bowel cancer
  • smoking - smoking may increase your chances of getting bowel cancer
  • family history – having a close relative (mother or father, brother or sister) who developed bowel cancer under the age of 50 puts you at a greater lifetime risk of developing the condition; screening is offered to people in this situation, and you should discuss this with your GP

Some people also have an increased risk of bowel cancer because they have another condition, such as extensive ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease in the colon for more than 10 years.

Although there are some risks you can't change, such as your family history or your age, there are several ways you can lower your chances of developing the condition.

Read about:

Bowel cancer screening

Bowel Screening Wales invites men and women aged between 51 and 74, and who are living in Wales, for bowel screening every two years.

The screening test looks for hidden blood in your poo. Blood in your poo can be a sign of bowel cancer or of other changes such as polyps (small growths). Most polyps are harmless but some can lead to bowel cancer. Most polyps can be easily removed. There may also be other reasons for the blood, such as haemorrhoids (piles) or small tears in the bowel. The test kit does not tell you if you have bowel cancer. The results will tell you if you need further tests such as a colonoscopy (a camera inserted into your bottom).

You can find out more information on the Bowel Screening Wales website by calling the Freephone helpline on 0800 294 3370.

Treatment for bowel cancer

Bowel cancer can be treated using a combination of different treatments, depending on where the cancer is in your bowel and how far it has spread.

The main treatments are:

  • surgery – the cancerous section of bowel is removed; it's the most effective way of curing bowel cancer and in many cases is all you need
  • chemotherapy – where medication is used to kill cancer cells
  • radiotherapy – where radiation is used to kill cancer cells
  • targeted therapies – a newer type of medicines that increases the effectiveness of chemotherapy and prevents the cancer spreading

As with most types of cancer, the chance of a complete cure depends on how far it has advanced by the time it's diagnosed. If the cancer is confined to the bowel, surgery is usually able to completely remove it.

Keyhole or robotic surgery is being used more often, which allows surgery to be performed with less pain and a quicker recovery.

Living with bowel cancer

Bowel cancer can affect your daily life in different ways, depending on what stage it's at and the treatment you're having.

How people cope with their diagnosis and treatment varies from person to person. There are several forms of support available if you need it:

  • talk to your friends and family – they can be a powerful support system
  • communicate with other people in the same situation – for example, through bowel cancer support groups
  • find out as much as possible about your condition
  • don't try to do too much or overexert yourself
  • make time for yourself

You may also want advice on recovering from surgery, including diet and living with a stoma, and any financial concerns you have.

If you're told there's nothing more that can be done to treat your bowel cancer, there's still support available. This is known as end of life care.


Main symptoms of bowel cancer

Symptoms of bowel cancer may include:

  • changes in your poo, such as having softer poo, diarrhoea or constipation that is not usual for you
  • needing to poo more or less often than usual for you
  • blood in your poo, which may look red or black
  • bleeding from your bottom
  • often feeling like you need to poo, even if you've just been to the toilet
  • tummy pain
  • a lump in your tummy
  • bloating
  • losing weight without trying
  • feeling very tired for no reason

Bowel cancer can cause anaemia (when you have fewer red blood cells than usual), which can make you feel very tired, short of breath and have headaches.

See a GP if:

  • you have any symptoms of bowel cancer for 3 weeks or more

Try not to be embarrassed. The doctor or nurse will be used to talking about these symptoms.

Ask for an urgent GP appointment or get help from NHS 111 if:

  • your poo is black or dark red
  • you have bloody diarrhoea

You can call 111 or get help from 111 online.

Go to A&E or call 999 if:

  • you're bleeding non-stop from your bottom
  • there's a lot of blood, for example, the toilet water turns red or you see large blood clots

Find your nearest A&E

Do not drive to A&E. Ask someone to drive you or call 999 and ask for an ambulance.

Bring any medicines you take with you.


Some of these symptoms are very common and can be caused by other conditions.

Having the symptoms does not definitely mean you have bowel cancer, but it's important to get checked by a GP.

If your symptoms are caused by cancer, finding it early may mean it's easier to treat.

What happens at your GP appointment

The doctor will ask you more about your symptoms, general health, medical history, and if anyone in your family has had bowel cancer.

Depending on your symptoms, the doctor may feel your tummy and ask to do a rectal examination. This is where they put a gloved finger inside your bottom to check for any lumps.

You'll be asked to undress from the waist down for the rectal exam. You can ask for a male or female doctor or nurse.

You can ask for someone else to be in the room with you when the rectal examination happens.

You may be asked for a poo sample (stool sample) for testing, or be given a home test kit called a faecal immunochemical test (FIT), to collect a small sample of poo and send it to a lab. These check if you're bleeding from your bowel, which can be a sign of bowel cancer.

You may also be asked to have a blood test.

Referral to a specialist

You may get an urgent referral for more tests or to see a specialist in hospital if the GP thinks you have symptoms that could be cancer. This does not definitely mean you have cancer.

Further information

Who can get it

The exact cause of bowel cancer is unknown. However, research has shown several factors may make you more likely to develop it.

Cancer develops when the cells in a certain area of your body divide and multiply too quickly. This produces a lump of tissue called a tumour.

Bowel cancer usually first develops inside clumps of cells called polyps on the inner lining of the bowel.

However, it doesn't necessarily mean you'll get bowel cancer if you develop polyps.

Some polyps go away by themselves, and some don't change. Only a few grow and eventually develop into bowel cancer over a period of several years.


More than 9 out of 10 cases of bowel cancer develop in older adults over the age of 50, and nearly 6 out of 10 cases develop in people aged 70 or older.

Family history

Having a family history of bowel cancer in a first-degree relative – a mother, father, brother or sister – under the age of 50 can increase your lifetime risk of developing the condition yourself.

If you're particularly concerned that your family's medical history may mean you're at an increased risk of developing bowel cancer, it may help to speak to your GP.

If necessary, your GP can refer you to a genetics specialist, who can give you more advice about your level of risk and recommend any necessary tests to periodically check for the condition.


A large body of evidence suggests a diet high in red and processed meat can increase your risk of developing bowel cancer.

For this reason, the Department of Health and Social Care recommends that people who eat more than 90g (cooked weight) a day of red and processed meat should cut down to 70g a day.

There's also evidence that suggests a diet high in fibre could help reduce your bowel cancer risk.

Read more about eating good food and a healthy diet.


People who smoke cigarettes are more likely to develop bowel cancer, as well as other types of cancer and other serious conditions, such as heart disease.

Read more about stopping smoking.


Drinking alcohol has been shown to be associated with an increased risk of bowel cancer, particularly if you regularly drink large amounts.

Read about drinking and alcohol for more information and tips on cutting down.


Being overweight or obese is linked to an increased risk of bowel cancer, particularly in men.

If you're overweight or obese, losing weight may help lower your chances of developing the condition.


People who are physically inactive have a higher risk of developing bowel cancer.

You can help reduce your risk of bowel and other cancers by being physically active every day.

Read more about health and fitness.

Digestive disorders

Some conditions affecting the bowel may put you at a higher risk of developing bowel cancer.

For example, bowel cancer is more common in people who have had extensive Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis for more than 10 years.

If you have one of these conditions, you'll usually have regular check-ups to look for signs of bowel cancer from about 10 years after your symptoms first develop.

Check-ups involve examining your bowel with a colonoscope – a long, narrow flexible tube that contains a small camera at the end. This is inserted into your bottom.

The frequency of the colonoscopy examinations will increase the longer you live with the condition. This also depends on factors such as how severe your ulcerative colitis is and whether you have a family history of bowel cancer.

Genetic conditions

There are two rare inherited conditions that can lead to bowel cancer:

  • familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) – a condition that triggers the growth of non-cancerous polyps inside the bowel
  • hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC), also known as Lynch syndrome – an inherited gene fault (mutation) that increases your bowel cancer risk

Although the polyps caused by FAP are non-cancerous, there's a high risk that over time at least one will turn cancerous. Most people with FAP have bowel cancer by the time they're 50.

As people with FAP have such a high risk of getting bowel cancer, they're often advised by their doctor to have their large bowel removed before they reach the age of 25.

Families affected can find support and advice from FAP registries such as The Polyposis Registry provided by St Mark's Hospital, London.

Removing the bowel as a precautionary measure is also usually recommended in people with HNPCC as the risk of developing bowel cancer is so high.

Further information


When you first see your GP, they'll ask about your symptoms and whether you have a family history of bowel cancer.

They'll usually carry out a simple examination of your bottom, known as a digital rectal examination (DRE), and examine your tummy (abdomen).

This is a useful way of checking whether there are any lumps in your tummy or bottom (rectum).

The tests can be uncomfortable, and many people find an examination of their bottom a bit embarrassing, but they take less than a minute.

Your GP may also check your blood to see if you have iron deficiency anaemia.

Although most people with bowel cancer don't have symptoms of anaemia, they may lack iron as a result of bleeding from the cancer.

If you do have iron deficiency anaemia or symptoms of bowel cancer without any signs of bleeding from the bottom, you will be given a faecal immunochemical test (FIT) for a bowel screening.

This test will collect a small sample of poo to be sent to a lab. Your poo will be checked for tiny amounts of blood to see if you may have bowel cancer.

Hospital tests

If your symptoms suggest you may have bowel cancer or the diagnosis is uncertain, you'll be referred to your local hospital for a simple examination called a flexible sigmoidoscopy.

A small number of cancers can only be diagnosed by a more extensive examination of the colon.

The two tests used for this are colonoscopy or computerised tomography (CT) colonography.

Emergency referrals, such as people with bowel obstruction, will be diagnosed by a CT scan.

Those with severe iron deficiency anaemia and few or no bowel symptoms are usually diagnosed by colonoscopy.

Flexible sigmoidoscopy

A flexible sigmoidoscopy is an examination of your back passage and some of your large bowel using a device called a sigmoidoscope.

A sigmoidoscope is a long, thin, flexible tube attached to a very small camera and light. It's inserted into your bottom and up into your bowel.

The camera relays images to a monitor and can also be used to take biopsies, where a small tissue sample is removed for further analysis.

It's better if your lower bowel is empty when you have a sigmoidoscopy, so you may be asked to use an enema (a simple procedure to flush your bowels) at home beforehand.

This should be used at least two hours before you leave home for your appointment.

A sigmoidoscopy can feel uncomfortable, but it only takes a few minutes and most people can go home straight after the examination.


A colonoscopy is an examination of your entire large bowel using a device called a colonoscope, which is like a sigmoidoscope but a bit longer.

Your bowel needs to be empty when a colonoscopy is carried out, so you'll be advised to eat a special diet for a few days beforehand and take a medicine (laxative) to help empty your bowel before the examination.

You'll be given a sedative to help you relax during the test. The doctor will then insert the colonoscope into your bottom and move it along the length of your large bowel.

This isn't usually painful, but it can feel uncomfortable.

The camera relays images to a monitor, which allows the doctor to check for any abnormal areas within the rectum or bowel that could be the result of cancer.

As with a sigmoidoscopy, a biopsy may also be performed during the test.

A colonoscopy usually takes about an hour to complete, and most people can go home once they've recovered from the effects of the sedative.

You will probably feel drowsy for a while after the procedure, so you'll need to arrange for someone to accompany you home.

It's best for elderly people to have someone with them for 24 hours after the test. You'll be advised not to drive for 24 hours.

Occasionally, it may not be possible to pass the colonoscope completely around the bowel. In this case, a CT colonography may be necessary.

CT colonography

CT colonography, also known as a "virtual colonoscopy", involves using a computerised tomography (CT) scanner to produce three-dimensional images of the large bowel and rectum.

During the procedure, gas is used to inflate the bowel using a thin, flexible tube placed in your rectum. CT scans are then taken from a number of different angles.

As with a colonoscopy, you may need to have a special diet for a few days and take a laxative before the test to ensure your bowels are empty when it's carried out.

You may also be asked to take a liquid called gastrograffin before the test.

A CT colonography can help identify potentially cancerous areas in people who cannot have a colonoscopy because of other medical reasons.

It's less invasive than a colonoscopy, but you may still need to have colonoscopy or flexible sigmoidoscopy at a later stage so any abnormal areas can be removed or biopsied.

Further information

Further tests

If bowel cancer is diagnosed, further testing are usually carried out to check if the cancer has spread from the bowel to other parts of the body. 

They also help your doctors decide on the most effective treatment for you.

These tests can include:

  • a CT scan of your abdomen and chest – to check if the rest of your bowel is healthy and whether the cancer has spread to the liver or lungs
  • magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan – this can provide a detailed image of the surrounding organs in people with cancer in the rectum

Stages of bowel cancer

After all tests have been completed, it's usually possible to determine the stage of your cancer.

There are two ways that bowel cancer can be staged.

The first is known as the TNM staging system:

  • T – indicates the size of the tumour
  • N – indicates whether the cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes
  • M – indicates whether the cancer has spread to other parts of the body (metastasis)

Bowel cancer is also staged numerically. The four main stages are:

  • stage 1 – the cancer is still contained within the lining of the bowel or rectum
  • stage 2 – the cancer has spread beyond the layer of muscle surrounding the bowel and may have penetrated the surface covering the bowel or nearby organs
  • stage 3 – the cancer has spread into nearby lymph nodes
  • stage 4 – the cancer has spread beyond the bowel into another part of the body, such as the liver

Cancer Research UK has more information about bowel cancer stages.

Bowel cancer screening

In Wales, everyone aged 51 to 74 who is registered with a GP is eligible for NHS bowel cancer screening.

This involves using a home testing kit to send off some samples of your stool to be tested for the presence of blood.

This can help detect bowel cancer before symptoms appear, making it easier to treat and improving the chances of survival.

Read more about bowel cancer screening.


Treatment for bowel cancer will depend on which part of your bowel is affected and how far the cancer has spread.

Surgery is usually the main treatment for bowel cancer, and may be combined with chemotherapy, radiotherapy or biological treatments, depending on your particular case.

If it's detected early enough, treatment can cure bowel cancer and stop it coming back.

Unfortunately, a complete cure is not always possible and there is sometimes a risk that the cancer could recur at a later stage.

A cure is highly unlikely in more advanced cases that can't be removed completely by surgery.

But symptoms can be controlled and the spread of the cancer can be slowed using a combination of treatments.

Your treatment team

If you are diagnosed with bowel cancer, you will be cared for by a multidisciplinary team – including:

  • a specialist cancer surgeon
  • an oncologist (a radiotherapy and chemotherapy specialist)
  • a radiologist
  • a specialist nurse

When deciding what treatment is best for you, your care team will consider the type and size of the cancer, your general health, whether the cancer has spread to other parts of your body and how aggressive the cancer is.

Further information

Surgery for colon cancer

If colon cancer is at a very early stage, it may be possible to remove just a small piece of the lining of the colon wall, known as local excision.

If the cancer spreads into muscles surrounding the colon, it will usually be necessary to remove an entire section of your colon, known as a colectomy.

There are 3 ways a colectomy can be performed:

  • an open colectomy – where the surgeon makes a large cut (incision) in your abdomen and removes a section of your colon
  • a laparoscopic (‘keyhole') colectomy – where the surgeon makes a number of small incisions in your abdomen and uses special instruments guided by a camera to remove a section of colon
  • robotic surgery – a type of keyhole surgery where the surgeon's instruments guide the robot, which removes the cancer

During robotic surgery, there's no direct connection between the surgeon and the patient, which means it would be possible for the surgeon to not be in the same hospital as the patient.

Robotic surgery is not available in many centres in the UK at the moment.

During surgery, nearby lymph nodes are also removed. The ends of the bowel can be joined together after bowel cancer surgery, but very occasionally this is not possible and a stoma is needed.

Both open and laparoscopic colectomies are thought to be equally effective at removing cancer and have similar risks of complications.

But laparoscopic or robotic colectomies have the advantage of a faster recovery time and less post-operative pain.

Laparoscopic surgery is now becoming the routine way of doing most of these operations.

Laparoscopic colectomies should be available in all hospitals that carry out bowel cancer surgery, although not all surgeons perform this type of surgery.

Discuss your options with your surgeon to see if this method can be used.

Further information

Surgery for rectal cancer

There are a number of different types of surgery for rectal cancer, depending on how far the cancer has spread.

Some operations are carried out through the bottom, with no need for abdominal incisions.

Local resection

If you have a very small, early stage rectal cancer, your surgeon may be able to remove it in an operation called a local resection (transanal, through the bottom resection).

The surgeon puts an endoscope in through your bottom and removes the cancer from the wall of the rectum.

Total mesenteric excision

In most cases, a local resection is not possible at the moment. Instead, a larger area of the rectum will need to be removed.

This area will include a border of rectal tissue free of cancer cells, as well as fatty tissue from around the bowel (the mesentery).

This type of operation is known as total mesenteric excision (TME).

Removing the mesentery can help ensure all the cancerous cells are removed, which can lower the risk of the cancer recurring at a later stage.

Depending on where in your rectum the cancer is located, one of two main types of TME operations may be carried out.

Anterior resection

Low anterior resection is a procedure used to treat cases where the cancer is away from the sphincters that control bowel action.

The surgeon will make an incision in your abdomen and remove part of your rectum, as well as some surrounding tissue to make sure any lymph glands containing cancer cells are also removed.

They then attach your colon to the lowest part of your rectum or upper part of the anal canal.

Sometimes they turn the end of the colon into an internal pouch to replace the rectum.

You'll probably need a temporary stoma to give the joined section of bowel time to heal.

This will be closed at a second, less major, operation.

Abdominoperineal resection

Abdominoperineal resection is used to treat cases where the cancer is in the lowest section of your rectum.

It's usually necessary to remove the whole of your rectum and surrounding muscles to reduce the risk of the cancer regrowing in the same area.

This involves removing and closing the anus and removing its sphincter muscles, so there's no option except to have a permanent stoma after the operation.

Stoma surgery

Where a section of the bowel is removed and the remaining bowel joined, the surgeon may sometimes decide to divert your poo away from the join to allow it to heal.

Poo is temporarily diverted by bringing a loop of bowel out through the abdominal wall and attaching it to the skin – this is called a stoma. A bag is worn over the stoma to collect the faeces.

When the stoma is made from small bowel (ileum) it is called an ileostomy and when it is made from the large bowel (colon) it is called a colostomy.

A specialist nurse known as a stoma care nurse can advise you on the best site for a stoma before surgery.

The nurse will take into account factors such as your body shape and lifestyle, although this may not be possible where surgery is carried out in an emergency.

In the first few days after surgery, the stoma care nurse will advise on the care necessary to look after the stoma and the type of bag suitable.

Once the join in the bowel has safely healed, which can take several weeks, the stoma can be closed during further surgery.

For various reasons, in some people rejoining the bowel may not be possible - or may lead to problems controlling bowel function - and the stoma may become permanent.

Before having surgery, the care team will advise you about whether it may be necessary to form an ileostomy or colostomy, and the likelihood of this being temporary or permanent.

There are patient support groups for people who have just had or are about to have a stoma.

You can get more details from your stoma care nurse, or visit the groups online for further information.

These include:

Cancer Research also has more information and advice about coping with a stoma after bowel cancer

Side effects of surgery

Bowel cancer operations carry many of the same risks as other major operations, including:

  • bleeding
  • infection
  • developing blood clots; usually in the legs (deep vein thrombosis)
  • heart or breathing problems

The operations all carry a number of risks specific to the procedure.

One risk is that the joined up section of bowel may not heal properly and leak inside your abdomen. This is usually only a risk in the first few days after the operation.

Another risk is for people having rectal cancer surgery. The nerves that control urination and sexual function are very close to the rectum, and sometimes surgery to remove a rectal cancer can damage these nerves.

After rectal cancer surgery, most people need to go to the toilet to open their bowels more often than before, although this usually settles down within a few months of the operation.

Occasionally, some people – particularly men – have other distressing symptoms, such as pain in the pelvic area and constipation alternating with frequent bowel motions.

Frequent bowel motions can lead to severe soreness around the anal canal.

Support and advice should be offered on how to cope with these symptoms until the bowel adapts to the loss of part of the back passage.


There are several ways radiotherapy can be used to treat bowel cancer:

  • before surgery -  to shrink rectal cancers and increase the chances of complete removal
  • instead of surgery - to cure or stop the spread of early-stage rectal cancer, if you can't have surgery
  • as palliative radiotherapy – to control symptoms and slow the spread of cancer in advanced cases

Radiotherapy before surgery for rectal cancer can be performed in two ways:

  • external radiotherapy – a machine is used to beam high-energy waves at your rectum to kill cancerous cells
  • internal radiotherapy (brachytherapy) – a tube that releases a small amount of radiation is inserted into your bottom and placed next to the cancer to shrink it and kill the cancer cells

External radiotherapy is usually given daily, five days a week, with a break at the weekend.

Depending on the size of your tumour, you may need one to five weeks of treatment. Each session of radiotherapy is short and will only last for 10 to 15 minutes.

Internal radiotherapy may also involve several treatment sessions. If you're also having surgery, this will usually be carried out a few weeks after your radiotherapy course finishes.

Palliative radiotherapy is usually given in short daily sessions, with a course ranging from two to three days, up to 10 days.

Short-term side effects of radiotherapy can include:

  • feeling sick
  • fatigue
  • diarrhoea
  • burning and irritation of the skin around the rectum and pelvis (this looks and feels like sunburn)
  • a frequent need to pee
  • a burning sensation when peeing

These side effects should pass once the course of radiotherapy has finished.

Tell your care team if the side effects of treatment become particularly troublesome.

Additional treatments are often available to help you cope with the side effects.

Long-term side effects of radiotherapy can include:

If you want to have children, it may be possible to store a sample of your sperm or eggs before treatment begins so they can be used in fertility treatments in the future.

Further information


There are 3 ways chemotherapy can be used to treat bowel cancer:

  • before surgery - used in combination with radiotherapy to shrink a tumour
  • after surgery - to reduce the risk of the cancer recurring
  • palliative chemotherapy - to slow the spread of advanced bowel cancer and help control symptoms

Chemotherapy for bowel cancer usually involves taking a combination of medicines that kill cancer cells.

They can be given as a tablet (oral chemotherapy), through a drip in your arm (intravenous chemotherapy), or as a combination of both.

Treatment is given in courses (cycles) that are two to three weeks long each, depending on the stage or grade of your cancer.

A single session of intravenous chemotherapy can last from several hours to several days.

Most people having oral chemotherapy take tablets over the course of two weeks before having a break from treatment for 1 week.

A course of chemotherapy can last up to six months, depending on how well you respond to the treatment.

In some cases, it can be given in smaller doses over longer periods of time (maintenance chemotherapy).

Side effects of chemotherapy can include:

  • fatigue
  • feeling sick
  • vomiting
  • diarrhoea
  • mouth ulcers
  • hair loss with certain treatment regimens, but this is generally uncommon in the treatment of bowel cancer
  • a sensation of numbness, tingling or burning in your hands, feet and neck

These side effects should gradually pass once your treatment has finished.

It usually takes a few months for your hair to grow back if you experience hair loss.

Chemotherapy can also weaken your immune system, making you more vulnerable to infection.

Inform your care team or GP as soon as possible if you experience possible signs of an infection, including a high temperature (fever) or a sudden feeling of being generally unwell.

Medications used in chemotherapy can cause temporary damage to men's sperm and women's eggs.

This means there's a risk to the unborn baby's health for women who become pregnant or men who father a child. 

It is recommended you use a reliable method of contraception while having chemotherapy treatment and for a period after your treatment has finished.

Targeted therapies

Targeted therapies are medicines designed to target 1 or more of the biological processes that bowel cancer uses to spread inside the body.

For example, cetuximab and panitumumab are medicines that target proteins called epidermal growth factor receptors (EGFRs), which are found on the surface of some cancer cells.

As EGFRs help the cancer grow, targeting these proteins can shrink tumours and improve the effect of chemotherapy.

Targeted therapies are sometimes used in combination with chemotherapy when the cancer has spread beyond the bowel (metastatic bowel cancer).

Side effects of targeted therapies include:

  • skin rash
  • diarrhoea
  • sore eyes

Some targeted therapies can also trigger an allergic reaction the first time a person takes them. You may be given an anti-allergy medicine to try to prevent such a reaction.

Further information

Living with

Bowel cancer can affect your daily life in different ways, depending on what stage it is at and what treatment you are having.

How people cope with their diagnosis and treatment varies from person to person. There are several forms of support available if you need it.

Not all of these work for everybody, but one or more of them should help:

  • talk to your friends and family – they can be a powerful support system
  • communicate with other people in the same situation – for example, through bowel cancer support groups
  • find out as much as possible about your condition
  • do not try to do too much or overexert yourself
  • make time for yourself

Bowel Cancer UK has more information about living with and beyond bowel cancer

Talk to others

Your GP or nurse may be able to reassure you if you have questions, or you may find it helpful to talk to a trained counsellor, psychologist or specialist telephone helpline operator. Your GP surgery will have information on these.

Some people find it helpful to talk to others with bowel cancer at a local support group or through an internet chat room.

Beating Bowel Cancer offers support services to people with bowel cancer.

They have an Ask the nurse service where specialist nurses give information and signpost you to further support. Email

Bowel Cancer UK also has an online forum for anyone affected by bowel cancer.

Macmillan Cancer Support also has more information about cancer support groups

Your emotions

Having cancer can cause a range of emotions. These may include shock, anxiety, relief, sadness and depression.

Different people deal with serious problems in different ways. It is difficult to predict how knowing you have cancer will affect you.

However, you and your loved ones may find it helpful to know about the feelings that people diagnosed with cancer have reported.

Macmillan Cancer Support has more information about the emotional effects of cancer

Recovering for surgery

Surgeons and anaesthetists have found that using an enhanced recovery programme after bowel cancer surgery helps patients recover more quickly.

Most hospitals now use this programme. It involves giving you more information about what to expect before the operation, avoiding giving you strong laxatives to clean the bowel before surgery, and in some cases giving you a sugary drink two hours before the operation to give you energy.

During and after the operation, the anaesthetist controls the amount of intravenous fluid you need. After the operation, you will be given painkillers that allow you to get up and out of bed by the next day.

Most people will be able to eat a light diet the day after their operation.

To reduce the risk of deep vein thrombosis (blood clots in the legs) you may be given special compression stockings that help prevent blood clots, or a regular injection with a blood-thinning medication called heparin until you are fully mobile.

A nurse or physiotherapist will help you get out of bed and regain your strength so you can go home within a few days.

With the enhanced recovery programme, most people are able to go home within a week of their operation.

The exact timing depends on when you and the doctors and nurses looking after you agree you are well enough to go home.

You will be asked to return to hospital a few weeks after your treatment has finished so tests can be carried out to check for any remaining signs of cancer.

You may also need routine check-ups for the next few years to look out for signs of the cancer recurring. It's becoming increasingly possible to cure cancers that recur after surgery.

Diet after bowel surgery

If you've had part of your colon removed, it's likely you'll experience some diarrhoea or frequent bowel motions.

One of the functions of the colon is to absorb water from poo and empty when going to the toilet.

After surgery, the bowel initially doesn't empty as well, particularly if part of the rectum has been removed.

Tell your care team if this becomes a problem, as medicine is available to help control these problems.

You may find some foods upset your bowels, particularly during the first few months after your operation.

Different foods can upset different people, but food and drink known to cause problems include fruit and vegetables that are high in fibre, such as beans, cabbages, apples and bananas, and fizzy drinks, such as cola and beer.

You may find it useful to keep a food diary to record the effects of different foods on your bowel.

Contact your care team if you find you're having problems with your bowels as a result of your diet, or you're finding it difficult to maintain a healthy diet. You may need to be referred to a dietitian for further advice.

Cancer Research UK has more information about diet after bowel cancer

Living with a stoma

If you need a temporary or permanent stoma with an external bag or pouch, you may feel worried about how you look and how others will react to you.

For more information and advice about living with a stoma - including stoma care, stoma products and ‘stoma-friendly’ diets - see the ileostomy and colostomy topics.

For those who want further information about living with a stoma, there are patient support groups that provide support for people who may have had, or are due to have, a stoma.

You can get more details from your stoma care nurse, or visit support groups online for further information:

Sex and bowel cancer

Having cancer and receiving treatment may affect how you feel about relationships and sex.

Although most people are able to enjoy a normal sex life after bowel cancer treatment, you may feel self-conscious or uncomfortable if you have stoma.

Talking about how you feel with your partner may help you both support each other. Or you may feel you'd like to talk to someone else about your feelings. Your doctor or nurse will be able to help.

Cancer Research UK has more information about sex life after bowel cancer

Financial concerns

A diagnosis of cancer can cause money problems because you are unable to work, or someone you are close to has to stop working to look after you.

Financial support is available if you or a carer has to take time off work for a while or stop work because of your illness.

Further information

Dealing with dying

If you are told there is nothing more that can be done to treat your bowel cancer, your GP will still provide you with support and pain relief. This is called end of life care.

Further information

The information on this page has been adapted by NHS Wales from original content supplied by NHS UK NHS website
Last Updated: 05/07/2024 11:06:42