Chemotherapy is the treatment of cancer with anti-cancer (cytotoxic) drugs. The aim of chemotherapy is to kill cancer cells while doing the least possible damage to healthy cells.
If the cancer is contained inside the bowel, surgery is the only treatment needed and chemotherapy is not used.
Chemotherapy may be used for the following reasons:
Some people who have surgery have chemotherapy (and/or radiotherapy) beforehand to shrink the tumour and make it easier to remove during surgery.
Chemotherapy is often recommended for people if the bowel cancer has spread through the bowel wall or into the lymph nodes but no further.
If the cancer has spread to other organs such as the liver or bones, chemotherapy may be used as palliative treatment.
Some people have chemotherapy after surgery. In most cases you will have six to eight weeks to recover from surgery and you will start chemotherapy treatment when your wounds are healed.
Chemotherapy drugs are usually injected into a vein (intravenously) or sometimes given in tablet form. Some people have a small medical appliance called a port-a-cath or catheter placed beneath their skin through which they can receive chemotherapy. You will probably have sessions of chemotherapy over several weeks or months. Your medical team will work out your treatment schedule.
For more information please refer to Understanding chemotherapy.
The side effects of chemotherapy vary according to the drugs used. Your doctor will talk to you about these side effects and how to manage them.
Some of these side effects include tiredness, nausea, diarrhoea, mouth sores and ulcers, sore hands or feet, and a drop in levels of blood cells.
Most side effects are temporary and there are ways to prevent or reduce them. Tell your doctor or nurse about side effects you experience. They may prescribe medication to manage the side effects, arrange a break in your treatment or change the kind of treatment you are having.
While having chemotherapy you will be at a higher risk of getting an infection and bleeding in your bowel or other parts of your body. Tell your doctor if you are fatigued, or if you bruise or bleed easily. If you have a temperature over 38oC, contact your doctor or nurse immediately and go straight to the hospital emergency department.
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Information last reviewed January 2013 by: Karen Barclay, Colorectal Surgeon, The Northern Hospital, Lecturer in Surgery, University of Melbourne, VIC; Carole Arbuckle, Cancer Nurse, Cancer Council VIC; Karen Bowers, Eat it to Beat it Strategy Project Officer, Cancer Council NSW; Darrell Bowyer, Consumer; Rebecca Foot-Connolly, Stomal Therapy Nurse, The Alfred Hospital, VIC; Bernadette Hadfield, Stomal Therapy Nurse, The Alfred Hospital, VIC; Melissa Heagney, Media and Communications Advisor, Cancer Prevention Unit, Cancer Council VIC; Dorothy King, Consumer; and Loreto Pinnuck, Stomal Therapist, Wound Consultant, Paediatric Continence Specialist, Monash Medical Centre, VIC.