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A diagnosis of bowel cancer may feel overwhelming at first. Here, you can read about living with bowel cancer, the treatments available, and some of the changes you may need to make in your everyday life.
Bowel cancer is the fourth most common type of cancer in the UK; around 236,000 people are currently living in the UK with a bowel cancer diagnosis. For more information on the symptoms and signs to look out for take a look at our infographics or visit our be bowel cancer aware page.
Depending on the stage of your bowel cancer and the treatment you’re undergoing, your everyday life may be affected in different ways.
Coping with bowel cancer or dealing with a bowel cancer diagnosis can affect you emotionally, but there are different ways you can seek support. Although not all of these options may work for you, you may find it helpful to:
- Speak to others in the same situation as you, such as through a bowel cancer support group
- Research your condition and gather as much information as you can so you feel informed about your illness and treatment, and able to make decisions
- Discuss how you feel with friends and family, who can offer a supportive network. Or if you prefer, speak to someone outside your network, for example at Bowel Cancer UK, Macmillan Cancer Support or the Samaritans. Cancer Research UK also has an online forum called Cancer Chat, where you can exchange experiences with others.
- Get plenty of rest and make time for yourself
- Focus on ways to manage any stress you may feel, such as meditation. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, depressed or anxious, your doctor can also recommend someone for you to talk to
Types of surgery
There are different types of surgery for bowel cancer, depending on where the cancer is, its type and size, and whether it has spread.
If you have a small, early-stage tumour, your surgeon may just remove the cancer and surrounding healthy tissue from the bowel lining – the procedure is called a local resection.
Another type of surgery is a colectomy, where the part of the colon containing the tumour is removed, as well as the lymph nodes near your bowel, as cancer can spread to the lymph nodes. Your surgeon will then join the ends of colon back together.
Sometimes, to allow the bowel to heal, the surgeon creates a hole leading out of your abdomen called a stoma, which is described more below. This may be temporary for a few months, or if you have a large amount of colon removed, it may be permanent.
The operation may be done through keyhole (laparoscopic) surgery, which is carried out through small cuts in your abdomen. A small camera on a tube is also inserted so the surgeon can see inside your abdomen. The other type of surgery is open surgery, where a large cut is made in your abdomen to remove the tumour. Although keyhole surgery tends to take longer, the recovery time is usually shorter as it’s less invasive. Find out more about bowel cancer treatments in our consultant Q&A.
Recovering from surgery
While in hospital, you will be cared for by doctors and nurses, who’ll monitor your recovery, provide you with pain relief medication and help you move around to ensure you don’t develop a blood clot or chest infection. Depending on the type of surgery, you’ll normally be able to go home around a week or 10 days after your operation.
Bowel surgery or radiotherapy may cause you to have diarrhoea or loose stools for some time, especially if you’ve had a large part of your bowel removed. You may also have diarrhoea, alternating with constipation. Making changes to your diet can help with both, and your doctor can give you further advice on managing changes in your bowel habits.
It’s also normal to feel tired and lacking in energy during and after your treatment, particularly if your cancer is advanced, so it’s important to get plenty of rest and minimise your exposure to stress.
Coping with a stoma
If you’ve had a colostomy or ileostomy operation as part of your treatment for bowel cancer, you will have a stoma. The surgeon will stitch the end of your small intestine or the large bowel (colon) to a hole they make in the skin of your abdomen. The hole is called a stoma and faeces (poo) will pass out of it into a bag stuck to the skin. A white mucus will also ooze from the stoma – this is normal and will also be collected by the bag.
The stoma doesn’t hurt because it has no nerve supply. But this also means you have to be careful not to cause any damage to it, as you won’t be able to feel if it gets injured. In hospital, you will have a stoma nurse who’ll show you how to care for your colostomy and how to manage it at home. You can also call the nurse for advice after you’ve returned home while you learn to manage your colostomy.
Some people have a temporary colostomy to allow the bowel to heal after the cancer has been removed. After a few months, another operation is made to close the stoma and is called a stoma reversal.
Diet after bowel cancer
After surgery, you may need to make changes to your diet to manage diarrhoea or constipation. Some of this will be trial and error while you work out how different foods affect you, and it may help to keep a food diary so you can detect patterns.
Some foods that may help if you have diarrhoea include: bananas (very ripe), boiled rice, marshmallows, jelly babies, porridge, smooth peanut butter, mashed potato, white bread, pasta, gelatine, yogurt, eggs. If you have diarrhoea it’s important to stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water.
If you have constipation, it may help to eat some of the following foods: apricots, beans, bran, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, caffeinated drinks, chocolate, coffee, garlic, onions, peaches, peppers, plums, prunes, spinach, sweetcorn, spices, sugar free gum.
Making lunch your main meal may reduce how your bowel movements affect you during the night. And if you’re struggling to manage your bowel movements, speak to your doctor or nurse as they may also recommend certain medicines to help.
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