Which treatment for advanced bowel cancer
This page tells you about treating bowel cancer that has spread. You can find information about
- A quick guide to what's on this page
- What advanced bowel cancer is
- Local spread
- Secondary spread (metastasis)
- Treatments for advanced bowel cancer
- Chemotherapy for advanced bowel cancer
Treatments for advanced bowel cancer
Advanced bowel (colorectal) cancer means the cancer has spread to other parts of the body from where it started in the large bowel (colon) or back passage (rectum). Your cancer may be advanced when it is first diagnosed. Or the cancer may come back some time after you were first treated.
Once a bowel cancer has spread to another part of the body it is unlikely to be curable. But treatment can often keep the cancer under control for quite a long time. The choice of treatment depends on the cancer type, the number of secondary cancers and where they are, the treatment you have already had, and your general health and fitness.
You may have chemotherapy or radiotherapy to shrink a cancer and control symptoms. Some people may have a type of biological therapy, such as cetuximab (Erbitux). You usually have this with chemotherapy. In some situations, your specialist may suggest surgery to treat advanced bowel cancer.
There are specialised surgical treatments that doctors sometimes use to destroy bowel cancer spread to the liver (liver secondaries). These treatments include hepatic artery chemoembolisation, radiofrequency ablation, cryotherapy, microwave ablation and laser therapy.
Deciding about treatment
It can be difficult to decide which treatment to try, or whether to have treatment at all, when you have an advanced cancer. It is important to understand what the treatment can do for you. You will also need to consider your quality of life while having the treatment. Your doctor will talk through the options with you. There may be a counsellor or specialist nurse you can talk to. You may also want to discuss things with a close relative or friend.
Some people feel they would like to get an opinion from a second doctor before they decide on their treatment. If you would like a second opinion, you can ask your specialist or your GP to refer you.
You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the treating bowel cancer section.
Advanced bowel (colorectal) cancer means that the cancer has spread to other parts of the body from where it started in the large bowel (colon) or back passage (rectum). Your cancer may be advanced when it is first diagnosed. Or the cancer may come back some time after you were first treated. When cancer comes back after treatment it is called recurrent cancer. The cancer can spread
Cancer that has spread to another part of the body is called secondary cancer or metastatic cancer. The bowel cancer cells have travelled through the lymphatic system or bloodstream to another part of the body. The cells have then settled and started to grow there.
We have more information about how cancer can spread.
Remember the most important thing is where the cancer started. Having bowel cancer cells in your liver doesn't mean that you have liver cancer. You have bowel cancer that has spread – it is also called secondary bowel cancer. This is important because your doctor needs to use treatments that work on bowel cancer cells – not treatment for liver cancer.
This diagram shows how blood flows from the bowel to the liver. It helps to explain why the liver is the most common place for bowel cancer to spread. The next most common site of spread is the lungs. We have information about cancer that has spread to the liver and cancer that has spread to the lungs.
Once a bowel cancer has spread to another part of the body it is unlikely to be curable. But treatment can often keep it under control for quite a long time, and help people live longer. For some people with bowel cancer that has only spread to the liver or lungs, it may be possible to cure it with chemotherapy and surgery.
The choice of treatment for advanced bowel cancer depends on
- The type of cancer you have
- The size and number of secondary cancers and where they are in the body
- The treatment you have already had
- Your general health and fitness (performance status)
Chemotherapy to shrink a cancer and control symptoms is called palliative chemotherapy. To treat advanced bowel cancer, you have chemotherapy either into a vein or as a tablet. If the first type of chemotherapy you have (called 1st line treatment) does not control your cancer, you can usually have a different type of chemotherapy (2nd line or 3rd line treatment). The chemotherapy drugs you may have are
- Fluorouracil as an injection or through a drip, often with another drug called folinic acid
You may have one or a combination of these drugs for advanced bowel cancer. There is more about this on our page about chemotherapy for advanced bowel cancer.
Doctors sometimes use external beam radiotherapy to shrink a lump or tumour in the bowel that is causing pain. This is called palliative radiotherapy. You are more likely to have radiotherapy for rectal cancers than colon cancers.
Your specialist may suggest a type of internal radiotherapy called selective internal radiation therapy (SIRT) for secondary cancer in the liver. This has been approved by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) as a treatment for people who cannot have their liver secondaries surgically removed.
We have more information about SIRT.
Your specialist may suggest surgery to treat advanced bowel cancer
- To slow the cancer
- When the bowel is blocked
- To remove secondary cancer
There is detailed information about these operations on our page about surgery for advanced bowel cancer.
If the tumour in your bowel is causing symptoms your doctor may want to operate, to remove as much of it as possible. This type of operation is called debulking.
Specialised surgical treatments may be able to destroy bowel cancer that has spread to the liver (liver secondaries). These treatments include
- Hepatic artery chemoembolisation – blocking liver blood vessels to give a high chemotherapy dose to the cancer
- Radiofrequency ablation – using radio waves to destroy the cancer cells
- Cryotherapy – freezing the cancer cells
- Microwave ablation – using micro waves to destroy the cancer
- Laser therapy – using a laser to destroy the cancer cells
- Alcohol injection – injecting alcohol into the cancer to destroy the cells
There is detailed information about these specialised surgical treatments on our page about surgery for advanced bowel cancer.
Biological therapies are drugs that help the body to control the growth of cancer cells. A biological therapy called cetuximab (Erbitux) is licensed in the UK for people who have bowel cancer that has spread. We know from research that it can help some people with advanced bowel cancer to live longer when added to standard chemotherapy treatment. It can also improve quality of life. Doctors use it to treat people whose cancer cells have normal RAS genes. Your doctor will test your cancer cells before treatment to see if they have changes (mutations) in the RAS genes or they're normal.
We have more information about cetuximab and other types of biological therapy on our page about biological therapies for advanced bowel cancer.
It can be difficult to decide which treatment to try, or whether to have treatment at all, when you have an advanced cancer. You will need to consider your quality of life while you are having the treatment. The side effects of treatment, as well as stresses such as travelling back and forth to the hospital, can have a big effect on your quality of life. Your doctor will explain what they hope to achieve with the different treatments they offer you. Some people feel they would like to get an opinion from a second doctor before deciding on their treatment. If you would like a second opinion, you can ask your specialist or GP to refer you.
Your doctor will talk to you about all the options. There may also be a counsellor or specialist nurse at the hospital you can talk to. You may also want to discuss things with a close relative or friend. It can be helpful to talk over difficult decisions with someone outside your circle of family and friends. If you would like to talk to someone, contact our cancer information nurses or look at our bowel cancer organisations page. To find out more about counselling, look in the counselling section.
If you want to find people to share experiences with online, you could use CancerChat, our online forum.
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