Establishing good eating and drinking habits
There are very strong links between diet and bowel cancer, and one of the most important changes following treatment for bowel cancer will be to establish good eating and drinking habits that are both healthy and interesting to help you (and your family) stick to the new routine – as well as minimising problems associated with foods that can be difficult to digest with a surgically shortened bowel.
During surgery to remove the tumour, a section of your bowel will have been removed. How much is removed varies from patient to patient, depending on the size and location of the tumour, but your digestive system is now learning to function again with this section of bowel missing. For some people, their body also has to adapt to the formation of a stoma during their operation.
This will inevitably lead to some changes in your bowel habit, although these changes will be more apparent for some. People can also experience changes whilst having chemotherapy or during and/or after a course of radiotherapy.
The two most common problems for patients during and after treatment are diarrhoea (passing loose stools) and urgency – when you need to go, you need to go now. Occasionally, surgery for very low rectal cancers can cause problems with incontinence, and you may experience leaking from your bottom too.
It is important to manage your own expectation and be aware that it is unlikely your bowels will be exactly the same as they were before the operation. It might take a period of a few weeks or months to set into a 'new normal' routine and it's important to be patient – however difficult this might be.
It might be a good idea to keep a 'food diary' so you can record:
- What you eat
- When you eat
- The effect the food has on your bowels (including what happens and when it happens).
You may then be able to identify patterns and remove the foods that cause any problems from your diet.
To a certain degree it will be a case of 'trial and error' to see what you can eat and what you can't. You may also find that foods you can't initially tolerate can be reintroduced to your diet after a while with no problems. So don't be too disheartened if your favourite food upsets your system – you may well be able to eat it again in the future.
Maybe you could try eating your main meal at lunchtime to reduce the number of times you need to get up during the night. Also remember to keep drinking a sufficient amount of water if you are experiencing loose stools so you don't become dehydrated.
It is also possible to use medications to help reduce problems with very loose stools, under the supervision of your Stomal Therapy Nurse and GP.
You can download our comprehensive patient information booklet Diet & Nutrition - Your Recipe for Recovery.
If your bowels aren't settling down
It may take you longer to adapt to changes if you are having chemotherapy or radiotherapy after surgery. If your bowels really aren't settling into a new routine or you are experiencing ongoing weight loss, do talk to your doctor or nurse. They may recommend referring you to a dietician or be able to prescribe medication to control the symptoms.
Also remember you're not alone – perhaps you could post on our Bowel Cancer Forum, and explain the problems you're having and see if there are others who can give you hints and tips about what they did.
Alternatively you may like to contact our Nutrition Advisor for advice.
Please also refer to the Regaining Bowel Control section of our website.