How a two-part bowel cancer treatment could save patients from invasive surgery

Bowel cancer sufferers could soon be spared surgery that leaves them needing a stoma bag for the rest of their lives. Following pioneering research by NHS experts, thousands will be offered a two-part treatment, which involves a short, sharp burst of radiotherapy, followed by a 60-minute op involving no external incisions.

Patients can be free from cancer in a matter of weeks after the two-part treatment – while avoiding the risks of major surgery.

‘Previously, we would remove the entire rectum to get all the cancer,’ says Mr Simon Bach, consultant colorectal surgeon at Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham, who co-authored the research along with colleagues from the Leeds Cancer Centre. ‘But now, with routine bowel cancer screening tests for over-50s and greater awareness, we can spot these tumours far earlier, when they’re very small.’

Actress Lynda Bellingham, who died of bowel cancer in 2014 aged 66, pictured, spoke of her regret ahead of her death of not seeking help earlier because of the dramatic nature of the treatment

Actress Lynda Bellingham, who died of bowel cancer in 2014 aged 66, pictured, spoke of her regret ahead of her death of not seeking help earlier because of the dramatic nature of the treatment

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Traditional treatment involves surgeons removing a patient's rectum to ensure they taken away all of the cancer but leaving the person requiring the use of a stoma bag

Traditional treatment involves surgeons removing a patient's rectum to ensure they taken away all of the cancer but leaving the person requiring the use of a stoma bag

Actress Lynda Bellingham, who died of the disease in 2014 aged 66, spoke of her regret at not having testing – early detection, she said, would have spared her a barrage of potent treatment later.

Of the 42,000 new bowel cancers detected every year, more than 11,000 are located in the rectum, which acts as a reservoir to expel waste from the body. The first step for most patients, even at early-stage, is to remove the entire rectum, so doctors can be sure they’ve removed all the cancer. Rectal cancer can easily spread to other parts of the bowel and the liver if some disease remains.

Unlike treatment for other cancers, radiotherapy is seldom offered for small, early-stage tumours, as the benefits are not deemed worth the risk of the side effects such as skin damage, sickness and fatigue. But now, Mr Bach and colleagues have shown that even small tumours, less than 4cm in size, can be safely shrunk using radiotherapy and then extracted via a tube through the back passage.

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