Bowel cancer


Bowel cancer

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Surgery involves removing tissues or organs from the body. The type of surgery you have depends on your cancer. You may also hear surgery called an operation or a procedure.

Every operation is different. Ask your surgeon about what to expect.

Bowel cancer includes both colon cancers and rectal cancers.

Rectal cancer surgery can be complex and should be done at a specialist centre. See our Canrefer website for a list of specialist centres in NSW.

What you need to know

Bowel cancer surgery

The main purpose of surgery is to remove the cancer. The surgery that is performed will depend on:

  • where the cancer is
  • the size and type of cancer
  • whether the cancer has spread
  • whether you have other health problems.

Surgery can be either:

  • keyhole, also called laparoscopic
  • open surgery where the surgeon makes a cut into the abdomen .

There are many types of bowel surgery including:

Surgery to remove part or all of the colon

  • right hemicolectomy
  • left hemicolectomy
  • transverse colectomy
  • sigmoid colectomy
  • total colectomy

Surgery to remove part or all of the rectum

  • abdominal-perineal resection
  • anterior resection
  • total mesorectal excision
  • panproctocolectomy
  • transanal endoscopic microsurgery.

Your surgeon will discuss with you when and where you can have your operation, and any costs involved. They will also give you instructions about what to do before your surgery and what to expect afterwards.

About stomas

Sometimes when part of the bowel is removed, the surgeon may need to make an ileostomy or colostomy. This is where the cut end of the bowel is bought through the abdominal wall and a stoma is created. Bowel contents (faeces or poo) come out of the stoma into a bag or pouch.

Stomas can be temporary or permanent. Sometimes, the ileostomy or colostomy can be reversed once the bowel has had time to recover from the surgery. In this case, the cut ends of the bowel are joined together and the stoma is closed up.

If you need to have an ileostomy or colostomy there is support and help available. Bowel Cancer Australia have bowel care nurses and dietitians that you can contact on 1800 555 494.

The surgical team

Health professionals who work as part of the surgical team include:

  • surgeon
  • anaesthetist
  • nurse
  • allied health professional.

What to ask or talk about

Side effects of bowel cancer surgery

Your surgeon will discuss any risks of the surgery with you before your operation. Most hospitals will also give you written information about the surgery and who to contact if you have any concerns.

Possible side effects and complications from any surgery include:

  • pain
  • infection
  • bleeding
  • tiredness (fatigue)
  • loss of appetite
  • blood clots.

Possible side effects and complications of bowel surgery also include:

  • Changes in bowel and bladder function - There can be short or long term changes that includes difficulty controlling bowel or bladder function called incontinence. Or having to go to the toilet more often.
  • Blockage in the bowel - Can be caused by scar tissue forming (adhesions). If this happens it may cause constipation, pain and bloating of your tummy. 
  • Fluid leak (anastomotic leak) - When the internal joins don’t heal properly and contents from the bowel leak out.
  • Paralytic ileus - This is when the bowel doesn’t start working for a while after surgery. It can make you feel bloated and sick and you won’t be able to pass wind or open your bowels (poo).
  • Changes in sexual function - Men that have had bowel surgery may have difficulty getting an erection. Women may experience pain during sex.
  • Problems digesting some foods- Depending on the type of surgery you have you may need to change your diet and avoid some foods.

The surgical team looking after you during and after your operation will take care to reduce your risk of side effects, and treat any that you get.

Every operation is different. Ask your surgeon about what to expect and see our checklist of questions to ask.

checklist Checklists

Use our checklists to find helpful tips or questions to ask.

Next steps

Preparing for surgery

Before surgery, you will need to sign a consent form. It is important you understand what you are consenting to and the possible risks of the surgery.

Some things you should know are:

  • whether you need to have tests and a preoperative assessment
  • whether you need to change or stop any medications, e.g. blood thinners like aspirin
  • when you have to stop eating and drinking
  • when you have to be there
  • whether you need time off work
  • whether you need someone to care for you at home after surgery (if you are having day surgery you will need someone to drive you home).
If you smoke, you should stop before any operation as your risk of complications from surgery is higher.

Where to get help

There are people you can talk to for more information or support.

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