Chemotherapy for bowel cancer
Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill or slow the growth of cancer cells while doing the least possible damage to healthy cells.
Learn more about:
- When chemotherapy is used
- How chemotherapy is given
- Side effects of chemotherapy
- Video: What is chemotherapy?
If the cancer has spread outside the bowel to lymph nodes or to other organs, chemotherapy may be recommended:
Before surgery (neoadjuvant)
Some people with locally advanced rectal cancer have chemotherapy before surgery to shrink the tumour and make it easier to remove. You are likely to have chemotherapy together with radiation therapy (chemoradiation).
After surgery (adjuvant)
Chemotherapy may be used after surgery for either colon or rectal cancer to get rid of any remaining cancer cells and reduce the chance of the cancer coming back. If your doctor recommends chemotherapy, you will probably start as soon as your wounds have healed and you’ve recovered your strength, usually within eight weeks.
On its own
If the cancer has spread to other organs, such as the liver or lungs, chemotherapy may be used either to shrink the tumours or to reduce symptoms and make you more comfortable.
You may have chemotherapy through a liquid drip into a vein (intravenously) or as tablets. It may also be given through a thin plastic tube called a central venous access device. Some people have chemotherapy at home through a portable bottle called an infusor pump. You will probably have chemotherapy as a course of several sessions (cycles) over 4–6 months. Your medical oncologist will explain your treatment schedule.
People react to chemotherapy differently – some people have few side effects, while others have many. The side effects depend on the drugs used and the dose. Your medical oncologist or nurse will discuss the likely side effects with you, including how they can be prevented or controlled with medicine. It is uncommon to need a break or change in your treatment.
Common side effects include:
- feeling sick (nausea and vomiting)
- mouth sores and ulcers
- changes in appetite, taste and smell
- sore hands and feet
- hair loss or thinning
- increased risk of catching infections.
Pins and needles, numbness, redness or swelling in the fingers and toes are more common if using the chemotherapy drug called oxaliplatin. Skin peeling and increased sensitivity to sunlight are more common if using the chemotherapy drug called fluorouracil (or 5-FU).
Keep a record of the doses and names of your chemotherapy drugs handy. This will save time if you become ill and need to visit the emergency department.
For more on this, see Chemotherapy.
|During chemotherapy, you will have a higher risk of getting an infection or bleeding. If you have a temperature over 38°C, contact your doctor or go to the emergency department. Tell your doctor if you feel more tired than usual, or if you bruise or bleed easily.|
Video: What is chemotherapy?
Download a PDF booklet on this topic.
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.
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