Here’s Live Better With’s comprehensive guide to what to expect when you’ve been diagnosed with bowel cancer…
Jeremy Bowen is one of the most familiar faces of BBC News; as the corporation’s Middle East Editor, he’s used to challenging situations. But, at the start of National Bowel Cancer Awareness Month, Jeremy revealed that he is now a facing different sort of challenge – he has become one of the 42,000 people diagnosed with bowel cancer in the UK each year. In 2014, his BBC News colleague, George Alagiah, received a similar diagnosis and was treated; the cancer returned in 2017 and George was treated again. He was delighted to be able to return to work in January 2019.
Jeremy Bowen is using his experience to encourage people to overcome any embarrassment they might be feeling and consult their GP, if they have any of the typical signs or symptoms associated with bowel cancer. At 59, he was still too young to benefit from the main NHS bowel cancer screening programme in England and Wales, which doesn’t start until people reach the age of 60 – tests are sent to everyone who is eligible every two years up to the age of 75. (You’ll be invited for a one-off bowel scope screening test when you are 55 – but only if it is available in your area.)
In Scotland, NHS screening starts at 50, and Bowel Cancer UK wants to see the screening age in England and Wales brought into line with Scotland. But, although the risk of bowel cancer tends to increase with age, young people are often diagnosed with it too.
What to expect after a bowel cancer diagnosis
If you have been diagnosed with bowel cancer, your treatment plan is likely to include surgery to remove the tumour, plus chemotherapy and radiotherapy, or possibly a combination of these two, known as chemoradiation. You might also be invited to take part in clinical trails to test new cancer drugs.
If you have been diagnosed with stage 3 or 4 bowel cancer, your consultant may advise you to have chemotherapy and radiotherapy before surgery, rather than after.
Surgery for bowel cancer and what side effects to expect
The type of surgery you have depends on where the tumour is located, its size, and whether it has spread to other parts of your body. Your surgery may also mean that you have a temporary or permanent stoma (an opening in your abdomen), which changes the way your bowels work. When you have a stoma, you use a colostomy bag to empty your bowels rather than going to the toilet in the usual way.
Chemotherapy for bowel cancer
If you are having chemotherapy, it’s given as an injection, as a drip into a vein or as tablets. Individual chemotherapy drugs and drug combinations all come with side effects but they don’t affect everyone in the same way or to the same degree.
Radiotherapy for rectal cancer
In the UK, you might have radiotherapy to treat rectal cancer, although it is rarely used for people who have bowel cancer. Radiotherapy treatment can be internal (near the tumour) or external and side effects tend to be short term but, in some cases, they can be long term.
What can help with the side effects of bowel cancer treatment?
We’ve put together a list of some of the most common side effects of bowel cancer treatment and suggestions for what can help.
- Bladder problems – you may need to pass urine more often and it might be uncomfortable or trigger a burning sensation. Try to drink at least two to three litres of fluid a day, for example water or juice, but limit the amount of tea, coffee and alcohol you drink, if possible; even better, avoid them completely. If your treatment has caused bladder incontinence, you’ll find some excellent Live Better With products here, which will help you feel more comfortable and secure.
- Bowel problems – including constipation, diarrhoea and flatulence (wind), needing to go to the toilet urgently, and abdominal cramps. Your specialist or stoma nurse will give you advice on what to eat at different stages of your recovery but if you are struggling with excess wind or gas, try medicinal charcoal or peppermint oil for fast relief.
- Hernia – our ostomy underwear collection includes styles, like this support cami and support vest, specifically for women and men who have a hernia.
- Nausea and sickness – up to eight out of every 10 cancer patients have nausea or sickness during chemotherapy or radiotherapy and your medical team can prescribe medication that can ease this. There are also several tried and tested complementary remedies and aids like ginger oil or anti-nausea wristbands that can help too, and that you can safely take or use alongside any prescription medication.
- Sore skin – it’s a frequent side effect of all types of cancer treatment. We have an excellent range of skincare products that can help, including special ostomy skincare. If you need to keep areas of sore skin dry, take a look at Live Better With recommended products designed to help you with bathing or showering. It’s important to keep your skin as clean as possible, to minimise the risk of infection, for example, after surgery.
- Sore mouth – it’s a common side effect of chemotherapy so if it’s a problem for you, do take a look at the products we have found that can help with mouth problems. Our range also includes a protective paste that you can use not only for mouth sores and ulcers but also for ostomies that need protection.
- Sexual problems – a subject that people often find so difficult to talk about so we’ve tried to make it a little easier for you. We always stress that there are different ways to be intimate, and that intimacy doesn’t necessarily mean full, penetrative sex. If you are trying to find ways of exploring and enjoying intimacy and sex during and after treatment, Live Better With offers products and aids, from pretty underwear to gentle, skin-friendly moisturisers and lubricants, which can help you feel more comfortable, confident and secure. And you might find our guide to cancer and sex helpful too.
- Sleep problems – if you’re longing for a good night’s sleep, we can help! From sleep balms to sleeping masks, and hypoallergenic pillows to soft, soothing bamboo pyjamas, you’re sure to find something that will help you rediscover the joy of sound sleep. Sleeping well makes such a difference to the quality of your daily life and it’s an essential part of your recovery too.
- Tiredness – another of the most frequently reported symptoms of cancer treatment, it affects at least 75% of cancer patients. There are different ways of tackling tiredness: eating as well as possible, following the guidelines you’ve been given – special cancer cookbooks are great for ideas for easy, tasty meals; light exercise, including simple stretches and yoga to increase your flexibility and rebuild muscle tone, and learning techniques that will help to you to feel calmer and to focus, such as mindfulness. Take some time to explore the cancer fatigue section of the Live Better With online shop – you’re bound to find something that could help restore your energy and support your recovery.
And don’t forget the scientifically proven healing power of nature – it’s good for your body and mind and for your general well being. So, do take every opportunity you can to get out into the open air – to a local park, nearby countryside, or the coast, even for just short periods. It will make a world of difference and help you to feel like you again.
What can help if I have a stoma as part of my bowel cancer treatment?
Living with a stoma takes a lot of readjustment but if you have the right toolkit for ostomy care, life is much easier. You’ll find a range of recommended products, including bag deodorisers and no-sting medical adhesive remover, as well as special ostomy underwear, in the stoma care section of the Live Better With online shop.
And do take a look at our ostomy blog posts:
Looking ahead – moving on from treatment
Although bowel cancer is the fourth most common cancer in the UK, treatment is improving all the time and, the earlier your diagnosis, the greater the likelihood of recovery. As we mentioned, bowel cancer can strike at any age and it affects people in all walks of life.
Anisha, a busy GP, who describes herself as fun loving and active and has two children, was diagnosed with Stage 3B rectal cancer in 2018. (In one of life’s ironies, her husband happens to be a consultant gastroenterologist and one of the regional leads for the UK’s bowel cancer screening programme.) Anisha decided to take to social media to chart her journey from diagnosis through treatment and beyond. She doesn’t gloss over the tougher aspects of treatment but she’s also positive and inspirational, determined to raise awareness of bowel cancer and to focus on the future. You’ll find her on Instagram, @doctorsgetcancertoo, and you may find this Instagram hashtag inspring too #thisisbowelcancer.
For help and support when you have bowel cancer
Bowel Cancer UK – the UK’s leading bowel cancer charity offers advice, information and support to people with bowel cancer and their families; funds research; campaigns for early diagnosis and access to best treatment and care, and provides training for medical professionals.
Read our free Stoma Care Guide for more information on looking after your stoma, wearing your bag with confidence, what you can eat, and getting out and about.