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 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
  • 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. They run a nurse advisory line on 08450 719 301 or 020 8973 0011 available 9am to 5.30pm Monday to Thursday, and 9am to 4pm on Fridays. You can also email a nurse at nurse@beatingbowelcancer.org.

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

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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 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 about what to expect before the operation, 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 blood clots in the legs (deep vein thrombosis), 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 your stools (faeces) will be looser – one of the functions of the colon is to absorb water from stools.

This may mean you need to go to the toilet more often to pass loose stools. Inform your care team if this becomes a problem, as 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 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.

Contact your care team if you find you are having continual problems with your bowels as a result of your diet, or you are finding it difficult to maintain a healthy diet. 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 those who want further information about living with a stoma, 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:

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Sex and bowel cancer  show

Having cancer and receiving 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, 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.

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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 yourself if you have to stay off work for a while or stop work because of your illness. 

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. You can apply for one 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: 08/07/2015

Next review due: 08/07/2017

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