Living with bowel cancer 

Bowel cancer can affect your daily life in different ways, depending on what stage it is at and what treatment you are 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 them work for everybody, but one or more of them 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 (see links below)
  • find out as much as possible about your condition
  • do not try to do too much or overexert yourself
  • make time for yourself

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Talk to others  hide

Your GP or nurse may be able to reassure you if you have questions, or 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 at a local support group or through an internet chat room.

Beating Bowel Cancer offers support services to people with bowel cancer. For example, they run a nurse advisory line on 08450 719 301 that is available from 9am to 5:30pm on Monday to Thursday, and from 9am to 4pm on Fridays. You can email a nurse at nurse@beatingbowelcancer.org.

The organisation also runs a national patient-to-patient network for people affected by bowel cancer – and their relatives – called Bowel Cancer Voices.

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Your emotions show

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 is hard to predict how knowing you have cancer will affect you. However, you and your loved ones may find it helpful to know about the feelings that people diagnosed with cancer have reported.

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Recovering from surgery show

Surgeons and anaesthetists have found that using an enhanced recovery programme after bowel cancer surgery helps patients recover more quickly.

Most hospitals now use this programme. It involves giving you more information before the operation about what to expect, avoiding giving you strong laxatives to clean the bowel before surgery, and in some cases giving you 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 very carefully, and after the operation you will 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 deep vein thrombosis (blood clots in the legs), you may be given special compression stockings that help prevent blood clots, or a regular injection with a blood thinning medication called heparin until you are 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 are well enough to go home.

You will be asked to return to hospital a few weeks after your treatment has finished so tests can be carried out 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.

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Diet after bowel surgery show

If you have had part of your colon removed, it is likely that your stools (faeces) will be looser because one of the functions of the colon is to absorb water from the stools. This may mean that you need to go to the toilet more often to pass loose stools.

You should inform your care team if this becomes a problem, because medication is available to help control it.

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

Different foods can upset different people, but food and drink that is commonly known to cause problems include fruit and vegetables that are high in fibre, such as 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.

If you find that you are having continual problems with your bowels as a result of your diet, and/or you are finding it difficult to maintain a healthy diet, you should contact your care team. You may need to be referred to a dietitian for further advice.

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Living with a stoma show

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.

Information and advice about living with a stoma (including stoma care, stoma products and ‘stoma-friendly’ diets) is available on the ileostomy and colostomy topics.

For anyone wishing to obtain further information about living with a stoma, there are patient support groups who provide support for people who may have had, or are due to have, a stoma. You can obtain details through your stoma care nurse or visit them online for further information.

These include:

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Sex and bowel cancer  show

Having cancer and its treatment may affect how you feel about relationships and sex. Although most people are able to enjoy a normal sex life after bowel cancer treatment, if you have stoma you may feel self-conscious or uncomfortable.

Talking about how you feel with your partner may help you both to 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.

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Financial concerns show

A diagnosis of cancer can cause money problems because you are unable to work or someone you are close to has to stop working to look after you. There is financial support available for carers and for you if you have to stay off work for a while or have to stop work because of your sickness. 

Free prescriptions

People being treated for cancer are entitled to apply for an exemption certificate giving free prescriptions for all medication, including medication to treat unrelated conditions.

The certificate is valid for five years and you can apply for a certificate by speaking to your GP or cancer specialist.

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Dealing with dying  show

If you are told there is nothing more that can be done to treat your bowel cancer, your GP will still provide you with support and pain relief. This is called palliative care. Support is also available for your family and friends.

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Bowel cancer: Anne's story

Watch how Anne describes being diagnosed with bowel cancer, what treatment choices she had, and what it's like to live with bowel cancer

Media last reviewed: 02/10/2013

Next review due: 02/10/2015

Cancer and social care

If you have cancer, your first priority is medical care. But there are people who can help with other aspects of your life

Talking with your children about cancer

If you have cancer, talking to your kids about your condition can help reassure them

Cancer: end of life care

Information on coping with a terminal cancer diagnosis, including advice on counselling, practical issues and financial help

Page last reviewed: 02/09/2014

Next review due: 02/09/2016