‘It can happen to anybody’: How to manage a bowel cancer diagnosis
Vitality finds out more about the treatment and recovery for bowel cancer, and how Vitality member, Tony, navigated his diagnosis
It’s natural to have mixed emotions around a cancer diagnosis and there’s no right way to feel.The NHS recommends a number of ways to manage the rollercoaster of emotions someone might be feeling.
This includes talking to a counsellor, psychiatrist or a clinical psychologist.
“Like all cancer patients, people with bowel cancer will experience high levels of anxiety and distress from the diagnosis, but also from lack of understanding of the impact of the cancer on their lives and survival,” says Krishna Moorthy, surgeon and founder of cancer support specialists and Vitality partner Alvie Health.
If you are someone that has been diagnosed with bowel cancer, there are a number of treatment options that will be available to you.
“The choice of treatment is tailored towards each individual person and is based upon their age, general health and fitness, the exact location and size of the tumour, and whether the cancer has spread to other parts of the body,” says Dr Kiran Johal, a NHS doctor.
“Some people with a small, early-stage cancer may only require surgery, whereas others with more advanced disease may need a combination of all three treatment modalities (surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy),” she continues.
If you have health insurance with Vitality, you can access care fast at a time that is convenient for you through Care Hub.
Here, you can book a video consultation with a Vitality GP at a time that suits you.
Breaking the stigma around stomas
In some cases, a temporary or permanent stoma may have to be fitted to part of the person’s abdomen. A stoma is a bag that is surgically connected to the surface of the skin to divert faecal waste away.
“A permanent stoma may be formed in some cases of bowel (rectal) cancer where the back passage (anus) has to be removed as part of the surgery or when the cancer is so low that it is difficult to restore continuity of the bowel after removal of the cancer,” explains Krishna.
“While someone will need to avoid strenuous activities during the first few weeks after surgery, having a stoma is no barrier to living a full or active life,” according to Dana Frank, Lead Physiotherapist at Alvie Health. For example, stoma bags are waterproof, meaning you can swim with a bag.
It is also important to maintain a healthy weight following bowel cancer surgery as obesity can put extra strain on abdominal muscles, adds Dana.
That being said, there are some challenges that can present themselves to those who have a stoma. Dana explains that precautions should be taken to empty the bag prior to exercise in order to prevent leakages.
Adjusting clothes can also be a challenge, particularly in summer, for those with a stoma and psychological challenges around body image can also present themselves, such as anxiety around intimacy.
Managing a low fibre diet
Maintaining a healthy diet is hugely important for people undergoing treatment for bowel cancer and recovering from surgery. Kiran explains that the body needs energy to heal, following surgery, and that is it “super important” to maintain a balanced diet of carbohydrates, proteins and fats.
However, post-surgery, people may be given specific dietary advice, depending on the procedure, as this can affect the consistency of stools.
“For those recovering from bowel cancer, reducing insoluble fibre for a time may be important as this can be abrasive to the bowel and cause discomfort and sometimes further complications,” says Lou Wasilewski, Lead Dietitian at Onkohealth. Fibre can then be reintroduced over a period of months, as will be advised by a dietician.
Examples of low fibre foods include:
- White pasta and bread
- Fruit and vegetables that are well cooked and peeled
- White cereals, such as Cornflakes or Special K
At Vitality, we know that a cancer diagnosis can be incredibly hard on you and your family. That’s why we offer our health insurance members a range of added support with our Advanced Cancer Cover.
Through Vitality, you could get access to a physiotherapist, dietician, psychologist or a clinical nurse specialist, as well as other professionals, to help you through your diagnosis and recovery.
Vitality also rewards you for keeping up to date on your health checks, including smear tests.
Find out more information on how to earn points through regular health checks via Member Zone.
Tony Tyler had scarcely completed a 50-mile run across the Lake District when he was diagnosed with stage 3 bowel cancer.
“It was quite a shock to find out that I had colon cancer, I thought I was still tired after doing the 50 miles,” he tells Vitality. “You don’t think it’s going to happen to you. I was probably running on average 30 to 50 miles a week and doing a bit of gym as well.”
Tony’s only symptom was severe bloating, which had gone on for a period time before he phoned his Vitality GP. Following a referral, he was checked in for a colonoscopy and gastroscopy, which determined a tumour was present in his colon.
“When the doctor did the colonoscopy - he did various tests as well - they did a little biopsy of the tumour itself, took samples, tattooed the tumour (the only tattoo I’ve ever had in my life) and, unfortunately, the results from the histology came back that it was a cancerous tumour.”
At this point he was put in touch with Ola, his Care Consultant from Vitality, who Tony praises for being a “huge support” to him throughout his treatment process.
Following various meets with his surgeon and doctors, he was booked in for surgery to have the tumour removed just a few weeks after his initial diagnosis.
“There will always be that fear in the back of my head of the cancer coming back”
Fortunately, Tony’s cancer was in a position where it could be removed without the need to have a stoma fitted. “I had the operation on 23 January, I was up and walking around the ward by the 24th. I jokingly asked if I needed to get my 10,000 steps a day, and then I was discharged from hospital on 27 January,” he recalls.
Tony would, however, have to undergo chemotherapy following his surgery, but his Cancer Cover with Vitality meant he could have treatment at home. “It allowed me to carry on working. I could sit there with my iPad and do my normal job in many ways.” And as it turned out, he would only take five days off work throughout the whole process.
But the chemotherapy, he admits, was the hardest part of the whole treatment process. “The operation was the easy bit; the chemotherapy was the hard bit.”
Happily, though, he had someone that could keep him busy throughout his treatment... his first grandson, Arthur, who was born the day before his second infusion of chemo. “[His arrival] helped to keep me going all the way through,” he says.
One year after his procedure and eight chemo infusions later, Tony’s annual check-up showed the presence of some more polyps, but happily, they were benign. “There will always be that fear in the back of my head of the cancer coming back and certainly I’ve made some changes to my diet to try and prevent that.”
Now, he’s eager to raise awareness of the symptoms of bowel cancer and encourage people to get screened: “I was a very fit person that had a reasonable diet and you do tend to assume it can’t happen to you. I’m living evidence that it can happen to anybody.”
Not just that, though, Tony is preparing for another 50-mile run across the Lake District this July. “I’ve got a whole 3 or 4 months to get ready for the 50 miles in July, so I haven’t ruled it out just yet!”
Members of Vitality that have a health insurance plan can contact us straight away if they have a health concern and can be referred to our one-stop clinic. You won’t need to go through your GP first.
However, if you’re not insured with Vitality, please contact your GP as soon as possible and they can refer you to the NHS pathway should you require it.
Or if you are interested in taking out a plan with Vitality, visit vitality.co.uk for more details.
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