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Liver surgery leads to ‘remarkable’ boost for bowel cancer survival

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Patients with bowel cancer that has spread to the liver and who are eligible for surgery, are around 40 per cent more likely to survive if they undergo an operation to remove the liver disease.

If bowel cancer is diagnosed late when the disease has spread to other organs such as the liver – stage four of the disease – fewer than one in ten patients will survive beyond five years (7 per cent).

Now a new study from the National Cancer Intelligence Network (NCIN) shows that liver resection – removing the cancerous part of the liver and a small part of healthy tissue around it – can boost five year survival up to more than four in ten (46 per cent).

Not all patients with stage four of the disease are eligible for the treatment but in those where the surgery is possible this study suggests outcomes can be significantly improved.

Around 48 per cent of people with stage three bowel cancer – diagnosed before the cancer has spread to other organs – survive beyond five years. This means that people with advanced bowel cancer who have disease that can be removed using this new type of surgery would have a similar chance of survival as people with earlier stages of the disease.

Cancer Research UK’s Dr Eva Morris, lead author based at the University of Leeds, said: “The difference this surgery can make is remarkable. Cancer that has spread is often very hard to treat, so it’s good to see that there’s an effective treatment option for some patients with advanced bowel cancer.

“Smaller trials have shown us that this technique is effective, but this is the first time we’ve been able to say just how successful it is on a national scale.

“This surgery is very skilled and should be undertaken by expert surgeons working in specialist liver units. We must work towards ensuring that all patients who need liver resections can access these services.”

Bowel cancer is the third most common cancer in the UK and more than 37, 400 cases are diagnosed each year. Between 7,000 – 9,000 of these cancers will have spread to the liver at the time of diagnosis.

This study, published in the British Journal of Surgery, looked at over 114,000 people who had undergone surgery for bowel cancer and over 3,000 who had also had liver resections.

Although first performed in 1943 this technique only became accepted practice in the mid 1990s as initially it was very high risk surgery. It ultimately became the gold standard treatment for bowel cancer that has spread to the liver in 2004.

Chris Carrigan, head of the NCIN, said: “Despite major advances in the treatment for bowel cancer, survival in advanced bowel cancer has remained disappointingly low. But these figures show that good progress is being made in this field.

“It also shows how important it is to catch the disease early. An NCIN report last year showed that more than nine in ten people survive bowel cancer if it’s caught at the earliest stage.”


For media enquiries, please contact the NCIN press office on 020 7061 8300 or, out of hours, the duty press officer on 07050 264 059.

The surgical management and outcomes of colorectal cancer liver metastases, British Journal of Surgery by Eva Morris et al.