Advanced bowel cancer
When bowel cancer has spread to the liver, lung or lining of the abdomen and pelvis (omentum and peritoneum), this is known as advanced or metastatic (stage 4) bowel cancer. To control the cancer, slow its growth and manage symptoms such as pain, you may have a combination of chemotherapy, targeted therapy, radiation therapy and surgery.
Learn more about:
- Systemic treatment
- Radiation therapy
- Other treatments
- Palliative treatment
- Video: What is palliative care?
Advanced bowel cancer is commonly treated with drugs that reach cancer cells throughout the body. This is called systemic treatment, and includes chemotherapy and targeted therapy.
Targeted therapy drugs work differently from chemotherapy drugs. While chemotherapy drugs affect all rapidly dividing cells and kill cancerous cells, targeted therapy drugs affect specific molecules within cells to block cell growth.
Monoclonal antibodies are the main type of targeted therapy drug used in Australia for advanced bowel cancer. They include:
Bevacizumab – This drug stops the cancer developing new blood cells and growing. It is given as a drip into a vein (intravenous infusion) every two to three weeks, with chemotherapy.
Cetuximab and panitumumab – These drugs target specific features of cancer cells known as epidermal growth factor receptors (EGFR). They only work for people who have a normal RAS gene (known as RAS wild-type). The tumour will be tested for changes (mutations) in these genes before you are offered these drugs. These drugs are usually given as a drip into a vein (intravenous infusion). They may be given with chemotherapy or on their own after other chemotherapy drugs have stopped working.
Other types of targeted therapy drugs may be available on a clinical trial. Talk with your doctor about the latest developments and whether you are a suitable candidate.
Scans and blood tests will be used to monitor your response to systemic treatments. If results show that the cancer is shrinking or is under control, chemotherapy and/or targeted therapy will continue. If the cancer is growing, that treatment will stop and alternative treatments will be discussed.
Side effects of targeted therapy
The side effects of targeted therapy vary depending on the drugs used. Common side effects of bevacizumab include high blood pressure, tiredness, bleeding and headaches. The most common side effects of cetuximab and panitumumab are skin problems (redness, swelling, an acne-like rash or dry, flaky skin), tiredness and diarrhoea.
For more on this, see Targeted therapy.
Radiation therapy can also be used as a palliative treatment for both advanced colon and advanced rectal cancer. It can be used to stop bleeding and, if the cancer has spread to the bone or formed a mass in the pelvis, it can reduce pain. For further details, see Radiation therapy.
If the cancer has spread to other parts of the body, you may still be offered surgery. This can help remove some secondary cancers (e.g. in the liver or lungs) or relieve a bowel obstruction.
You may have surgery to remove parts of the bowel along with all or part of other affected organs. This may be called an en-bloc resection or, if the cancer is in your pelvis, an exenteration.
If the cancer has spread to the lining of the abdomen (peritoneum), you may have surgery to remove as many tumours as possible. This is known as a peritonectomy or cytoreductive surgery. Sometimes, a heated chemotherapy solution is inserted into the abdomen during a peritonectomy. This is called hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy (HIPEC). Recent studies suggest that surgery alone may be as effective as surgery followed by HIPEC, and ongoing research continues to test the best approach to treatment.
The type of operation used for advanced bowel cancer will depend on your situation, so talk to your surgeon about what to expect. Your medical team will advise what kind of follow-up and treatment is recommended after surgery. Regular check-ups have been found to improve survival for people after surgery for bowel cancer, so you should have check-ups for several years.
|Many treatments for advanced bowel cancer are best performed in a specialised centre. Call 13 11 20 for more information or to ask about assistance that may be available if you have to travel a long way.|
If the cancer cannot be removed with surgery, but has only spread to a small number of places in a single area, your doctor may recommend another type of treatment to destroy or control the cancer. These treatments, including thermal ablation, selective internal radiation therapy (SIRT) and stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT), are only suitable for some people. They are best performed in a specialised centre or may be offered as part of a clinical trial.
Palliative treatment helps to improve people’s quality of life by managing the symptoms of cancer without trying to cure the disease. It is best thought of as supportive care.
Many people think that palliative treatment is for people at the end of their life, but it may help at any stage of advanced bowel cancer. It is about living for as long as possible in the most satisfying way you can.
Sometimes treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy or targeted therapy are given palliatively. The aim is to help relieve symptoms such as pain or bleeding by shrinking or slowing the growth of the cancer.
Palliative treatment is one aspect of palliative care, in which a team of health professionals aim to meet your physical, emotional, practical, social and spiritual needs.
Video: What is palliative care?
A/Prof Craig Lynch, Colorectal Surgeon, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Prof Tim Price, Medical Oncologist, The Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Adelaide, and Clinical Professor, Faculty of Medicine, The University of Adelaide, SA; Department of Dietetics, Liverpool Hospital, NSW; Dr Hooi Ee, Gastroenterologist, Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, WA; Dr Debra Furniss, Radiation Oncologist, Genesis CancerCare, QLD; Jocelyn Head, Consumer; Jackie Johnston, Palliative Care and Stomal Therapy Clinical Nurse Consultant, St Vincent’s Private Hospital, NSW; Zeinah Keen, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council NSW; Dr Elizabeth Murphy, Head, Colorectal Surgical Unit, Lyell McEwin Hospital, SA. We also thank the health professionals, consumers and editorial teams who have worked on previous editions.
View the Cancer Council NSW editorial policy.
Click below to download a PDF booklet on this topic.
- Understanding Surgery Download PDF450kB
- Understanding Chemotherapy Download PDF383kB
- Understanding Radiation Therapy Download PDF423kB
- Understanding Palliative Care Download PDF423kB
- Caring for Someone with Cancer Download PDF442kB
- Overcoming Cancer Pain Download PDF269kB
- Living with Advanced Cancer ebook Download ePUB483kB
- Understanding Surgery ebook Download ePUB664kB
- Understanding Chemotherapy ebook Download ePUB1.01MB
- Understanding Radiation Therapy ebook Download ePUB1001kB
- Understanding Palliative Care ebook Download ePUB421kB
- Caring for Someone with Cancer ebook Download ePUB1.16MB
- Overcoming Cancer Pain ebook Download ePUB523kB
Life after cancer treatment
Webinars, exercise and nutrition, sexuality programs, and back-to-work support
Need legal and financial assistance?
Pro bono services, financial and legal assistance, no interest loans and other assistance
Coping with cancer?
Talk with a health professional or someone who has been there, or find a support group or forum
Cancer treatment, constipation, diarrhoea and other bowel irritations
General information on managing these issues
Nutrition and cancer help for carers
Tips for preparing food for someone with cancer
View our publications
Guides and fact sheets for people with cancer, their families and friends