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Bowel cancer surgery

If you have bowel cancer, you might need surgery to remove the bit of your bowel affected by cancer.

Doctor performing bowel cancer surgery about to make an incision into a patient's abdomen
If you have bowel cancer, you might need surgery to remove the bit of your bowel affected by cancer. Most people will also need some healthy tissue and lymph nodes around the cancer removing too. This is to make sure all the cancer cells have gone.

Before your bowel cancer operation

Your colorectal surgeon will talk to you about things you can do in preparation for your operation. They will also discuss lifestyle changes that can help you to recover as quickly as possible after your operation.

A special diet

For some types of bowel operation, you might need to eat a special diet for a few days before surgery. The day before surgery, you might need to drink high protein and energy drinks.

Other types of surgery will need you to take a laxative for a few days. You might also be asked to have an enema to empty your bowel completely. This is to help to prepare your bowel for your operation.


You will be given antibiotics to take before your operation to try to prevent infection. These might be given as an injection or taken as tablets.

You will also need to take medicine to help stop blood clots from forming in your legs after your operation. These are usually given as injections.

What happens during bowel cancer surgery?

There are a few different types of bowel cancer operations. The type you have depends on the cancer you have, where it is and whether or not it’s spread. Whichever type of surgery you have, you will probably have a general anaesthetic so you’ll be asleep for your operation and won’t feel any pain.

The operation usually involves your surgeon making a small cut (incision) in your tummy, and then removing the bit of your bowel that’s affected by cancer.

Your colorectal surgeon will carefully join your bowel together and close your wound with stitches. If your surgeon can’t join your bowel, you might need to wear a pouch on your stomach called a colostomy or ileostomy bag. This collects the waste from your bowel until you’ve healed enough after surgery, so your surgeon can join your bowel again. Occasionally, some people need a permanent colostomy or ileostomy bag. 

Keyhole surgery (also called laparoscopic surgery) is now more common as many surgeons are trained in this technique.

Results are equal to conventional surgery, only generally with a much faster recovery time because the procedure is far less invasive.

Recovering from bowel cancer surgery

How long you need to stay in hospital for depends on the type of surgery you’ve had. It’s usual for people to need to stay in hospital for a week to 10 days.

After your operation

You’re likely to have a drip in your arm to make sure you’re getting enough fluids until you’re able to eat and drink again. You might also have a catheter to drain your urine, a wound drain to help your wound to heal, and a tube down your nose into your stomach to drain fluids and stop you from feeling sick.

Controlling your pain

When you wake up from your operation, you’ll probably feel sore and bruised. If you are in pain, tell your colorectal surgeon or nurse, so they can adapt your pain relief type or dose to help.

Managing bowel changes

After your operation, you might notice that your faeces (poo) is different for some time. You might find you’re getting constipated. Or if you’ve had a large part of your bowel removed, you’re more likely to get diarrhoea. Your colorectal surgeon or specialist nurse can give you information and advice about coping with constipation and/or diarrhoea.

Leg exercises

Because you’re not moving around very much, you have a greater risk of developing blood clots when you’re in bed after your operation. Your nurse or physiotherapist will show you exercises you can do to help stop you from getting blood clots.

Side effects and complications

Bowel surgery is a common treatment for bowel cancer and is usually very straightforward. But as with any operation, there’s some risk of side effects and complications including:

  • a scar on your tummy that usually fades in time
  • infection, which will need treating with antibiotics
  • a hernia if your bowel doesn’t heal properly
  • chest infections
  • blood clots in your legs
  • damage to other organs in your tummy
  • a change in your sexual function.

Most of these are quite rare, but you should talk to your colorectal surgeon if you’re worried.

At Circle Health, we provide bowel cancer care, from screening to bowel cancer treatment to supporting you throughout your journey.

Paying for your treatment

You have two options to pay for your treatment – your costs may be covered by your private medical insurance, or you can pay for yourself.

Check with your private medical insurer to see if your diagnostic costs are covered under your medical insurance policy. If you are paying for your own treatment, the cost of the procedure will be explained and confirmed in writing when you book the operation.

Ask the hospital for a quote beforehand, and ensure that this includes the consultants’ fees and the hospital charge for your procedure.

For further information or to book a consultation or treatment, please get in touch with our cancer enquiries team: Call us on 0800 157 7747

Content reviewed: October 2014

Colorectal Cancer - A patient's journey

David shares his story of the shocking discovery that at 43 years old he had bowel cancer, and the roller-coaster of emotions that journey took him on.

David has gone through a full treatment plan with us and is now clear of the disease.

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