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Clinical Specialties - Cancer

Colorectal / Bowel Cancer

Colorectal cancer is the term for cancers found in the colon or the rectum, which make up the large intestine. It may also be referred to as bowel cancer. Colon cancer and rectal cancer are grouped together because they share many characteristics, symptoms and treatments.

Specialist colorectal cancer clinicians at Sydney Adventist Hospital form part our Gastrointestinal Cancer Multidisciplinary Team and use several methods to confirm your diagnosis and determine the stage of your disease. They have experience with early-stage as well as complex cancer; have access to advanced diagnostic tools and a wide range of treatments, including clinical trials. Our multidisciplinary model of care ensures all aspects of your treatment are monitored and regulalry reviewed. Explore this section to learn more about colorectal cancer, how it is diagnosed and possible treatment pathways.

About colorectal cancer

Colorectal cancer is cancer that develops in the tissues of the colon and/or rectum. The colon and the rectum are both found in the lower part of the gastrointestinal (digestive) system. They form a long, muscular tube called the large intestine (or large bowel). The colon absorbs food and water and stores waste. The rectum is responsible for passing waste from the body.

If the cancer began in the first section of the large intestine, it is referred to as colon cancer. If it began in the last 20cm section of the large intestine leading to the anus, it is called rectal cancer.

Colorectal cancer can also be referred to as bowel cancer. Bowel cancer grows from the inner lining of the bowel (mucosa). It usually develops from small growths on the bowel wall called polyps. Most polyps are harmless (benign), but some become cancerous (malignant) over time. If untreated, bowel cancer can grow into the deeper layers of the bowel wall. It can spread from there to the lymph nodes.

Lymph nodes are small, bean-shaped masses that are part of the body’s lymphatic system. If the cancer advances further, it can spread (metastasize) to other organs, such as the liver or lungs. In most cases, the cancer is confined to the bowel for months or years before spreading.

What are the symptoms of colorectal cancer?

Early stages of colorectal cancer can be difficult to identify and may only be discovered by routine screening. Sometimes they can present with non-specific symptoms, which can be commonly found in other illnesses, such as haemorrhoids.

There are some possible warning signs — for example, rectal bleeding or blood in your stool. The following symptoms may also be potential signs of colorectal cancer:

  • Change in bowel habits (such as diarrhoea, constipation, or narrow stool that lasts more than a few days)
  • Unexplained abdominal pain or cramping
  • A persistent urge to have a bowel movement that doesn’t go away after you have one
  • Unexplained weakness and fatigue
  • Unintended weight loss
  • A diagnosis of anaemia

If you experience any of these symptoms or have concerns, please contact your general practitioner (GP) as soon as possible.

How is colorectal cancer diagnosed?

Depending on the symptoms, the type of tests for colorectal cancer will vary. Early diagnosis of colorectal cancer is possible through a screening test called the faecal occult blood test (FOBT). The FOBT looks for blood in stool samples, possibly caused by polyps and early symptoms of colorectal cancer.

Australia has a National Bowel Cancer Screening Program that provides free and easy bowel cancer tests for individuals aged over 50. For more information you can call the National Bowel Cancer Screening Info line on 1800 118 868.

When there is suspicion of a possible colorectal cancer diagnosis, your medical practitioner may conduct a physical examination to check the abdomen for swelling or a digital rectal exam to check for swelling in the anus and rectum. Examinations may also include blood tests to check for anaemia or a colonoscopy to check for polyps or abnormal body tissue.

Your doctor may also refer you to one of the highly-skilled colorectal surgeons or gastroenterologists at the San for further physical examinations, blood tests or a colonoscopy.

Other imaging technology may be used to get a clearer picture for doctors to see if there is any evidence of cancer. This may include computed tomography/positron emission tomography (CT/PET scans) or Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI).

Your integrated team of colorectal cancer experts will use advanced diagnostic tests and tools to evaluate the disease, and plan your individualised treatment. Throughout your treatment, imaging and laboratory tests will be used to track the size of the tumours, monitor your response to treatment, and modify your plan when needed.

What are my treatment options?

Surgery is the most common type of treatment for colorectal cancer. However, this depends on the location of the cancer and whether it has presented at an advanced stage. Treatment options include surgery, radiotherapy or chemotherapy. If the cancer is found at an early stage, the chance of a full recovery is high.

Our colorectal cancer program offers comprehensive treatments as well as advances in radiation, surgery and chemotherapy, with a high quality of care. Your multidisciplinary team of colorectal cancer experts will answer your questions and recommend treatment options based on your unique diagnosis and needs.

Resources and useful colorectal cancer links
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Sydney Adventist Hospital Clinical Specialties and Services