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Self-management - Bowel cancer

Bowel cancer can affect your daily life in different ways. It can depend on what stage it's at and the treatment you're having.

How people cope with their diagnosis and treatment varies from person to person. There are several forms of support available if you need it.

Not all of these will work for everyone, but one or more should help:

  • talk to your friends and family – they can be a powerful support system
  • communicate with other people in the same situation – for example, through bowel cancer support groups
  • find out as much as possible about your condition
  • don't try to do too much or overexert yourself
  • make time for yourself

Talk to others

Your GP or nurse may be able to reassure you if you have questions. You may find it helpful to talk to a trained counsellor, psychologist or specialist telephone helpline operator. Your GP surgery will have information on these.

Some people find it helpful to talk to others with bowel cancer. You can do this at a local support group or through an internet chat room.

Your emotions

Having cancer can cause a range of emotions. These may include shock, anxiety, relief, sadness and depression.

Different people deal with serious problems in different ways. It's hard to predict how knowing you have cancer will affect you.

Recovering from surgery

Surgeons and anaesthetists are using a recovery programme that helps patients recover quicker after bowel cancer surgery.

Most hospitals now use this programme. It involves giving you more information about what to expect before the operation. The programme avoids giving you strong laxatives to clean the bowel before surgery. In some cases you may be given a sugary drink two hours before the operation to give you energy.

During and after the operation, the anaesthetist controls the amount of IV fluid you need. After the operation, you'll be given painkillers that allow you to get up and out of bed by the next day.

Most people will be able to eat a light diet the day after their operation.

To reduce the risk of blood clots in the legs (deep vein thrombosis), you may be given special compression stockings. These will help prevent blood clots. You may also be given a regular injection with a blood-thinning medication called heparin until you're fully mobile.

A nurse or physiotherapist will help you get out of bed and regain your strength so you can go home within a few days.

With the enhanced recovery programme, most people are well enough to go home within a week of their operation.

The timing depends on when you and the doctors and nurses looking after you agree you're well enough to go home.

We'll ask you to return to hospital a few weeks after your treatment. This is so we can carry out tests to check for any remaining signs of cancer.

You may also need routine check-ups for the next few years to look out for signs of the cancer recurring. It's becoming increasingly possible to cure cancers that recur after surgery.

Diet after bowel surgery

If you've had part of your colon removed, it's likely you'll experience some diarrhoea or frequent bowel motions.

One of the functions of the colon is to absorb water from stools and empty when going to the toilet.

After surgery, the bowel initially doesn't empty as well. This can happen if part of the rectum has been removed.

Inform your care team if this becomes a problem. There are medications available to help control these problems.

You may find some foods upset your bowels, particularly during the first few months after your operation.

Different foods can upset different people. Food and drink known to cause problems include fruit and vegetables that are high in fibre. These can be beans, cabbages, apples and bananas, and fizzy drinks, such as cola and beer.

You may find it useful to keep a food diary to record the effects of different foods on your bowel.

Contact your care team if you find you're having continual problems with your bowels as a result of your diet. Or if you're finding it difficult to maintain a healthy diet. You may need to be referred to a dietitian for further advice.

Living with a stoma

If you need a temporary or permanent stoma with an external bag or pouch, you may feel worried about how you look and how others will react to you.

There are patient support groups that provide support for people who may have had, or are due to have, a stoma.

You can get more details from your stoma care nurse, or visit support groups online for further information.

Sex and bowel cancer

Having cancer and receiving treatment may affect how you feel about relationships and sex.

Most people are able to enjoy a normal sex life after bowel cancer treatment. But you may feel self-conscious or uncomfortable if you have stoma.

Talking about how you feel with your partner may help you both support each other. Or you may feel you'd like to talk to someone else about your feelings. Your doctor or nurse will be able to help.

Dealing with dying

Your GP will provide you with support and pain relief if there's nothing more that can be done to treat your bowel cancer. This is called palliative care.

More information and support is available from the Irish Cancer Society.

Support is also available for your family and friends.

Content supplied by the NHS and adapted for Ireland by the HSE

Page last reviewed: 30 May 2019
Next review due: 30 May 2022

This project has received funding from the Government of Ireland’s Sláintecare Integration Fund 2019 under Grant Agreement Number 123.