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Colorectal cancer: Moving forward after treatment

When you've finished treatment for colorectal cancer, you may feel a lot of emotions. You're bound to have some questions too.

It's difficult to address the concerns of people with cancer in generalizations because each person's situation is unique.

Your doctor is the best source of information specific to your circumstances. But some general knowledge of what your future may hold can still prove helpful. Here are answers to some commonly asked questions.

When will side effects from my treatment subside?

Side effects depend on the treatment you had. Most, such as hair loss due to chemotherapy, are temporary.

Problems associated with radiation—such as nausea, fatigue or diarrhea—will also usually disappear soon after treatment ends. Occasionally, chronic irritation of the colon or bladder may persist. But generally, you can expect any colon problems to be short-lived.

"Most people, fortunately, are able to return to pretty normal bowel function after some period of time," says Durado Brooks, MD, vice president, cancer control interventions, prevention and early detection for the American Cancer Society (ACS).

What can I do to improve my physical stamina?

Treatment likely sapped you of some strength and energy. And you're probably going to remain low on energy for a while, according to Dr. Brooks. But resuming activity as soon as possible may be beneficial.

Dr. Brooks says being active can improve your energy and give you an emotional boost.

Your healthcare team can advise you on what activities are best. Even walking can be good. When you're tired, though, be sure you balance activity with rest.

Is it normal to feel anxious or depressed?

You may experience a variety of emotions as you recover. But doing something positive can improve your spirits.

One positive—and important—thing you can do is to encourage your friends and family members to get screened for colorectal cancer. Screening gives people the best opportunity to find the disease in its earliest, most treatable stages. And for close relatives, that can be especially important when there's a history of colorectal cancer in the family.

Other positive activities include volunteering with an organization like the ACS or becoming an advocate for colorectal cancer research.

You might also find emotional comfort by joining a support group where you can be with other people who are going through or have gone through a similar experience.

"Hearing their stories…and then seeing them in a recovered phase, functioning and doing well, can be very helpful for some people," Dr. Brooks says.

If you can't move beyond feelings of sadness or anxiety, talk to your doctor. "Don't just sit on it; don't just hide it," Dr. Brooks says.

What kind of follow-up is necessary?

Follow-up is extremely important because, after one colorectal cancer diagnosis, your chances for getting another go up.

"You need a surveillance plan," says Dr. Brooks.

Colonoscopies and other imaging studies, as well as blood tests that can check for tumor markers, will probably be part of that plan. Initially, you'll need to see your doctor fairly often, but the longer you go without recurrence, the less frequent doctor visits may become.

Can I do anything to keep cancer from coming back?

The possibility that cancer will return always exists. However, you may be able to lower the likelihood of recurrence.

First, follow through with all recommended treatment, Dr. Brooks advises. Then, look to lifestyle.

A diet high in red meat and processed meat increases the likelihood for colorectal cancer. So it's possible—although not yet proven—that this type of diet may raise recurrence risk. Try to limit these foods. Instead, focus on fruits, vegetables and whole grains. This healthy diet may help you feel better. Also, remember that alcohol and tobacco can increase your risk for colorectal cancer.

"It just makes good sense that anything that may have helped to contribute to your cancer early on, you wouldn't want to continue," Dr. Brooks says.

Finally, getting exercise may be valuable.

What else should I know as I move forward with life after treatment?

More and more people are surviving colorectal cancer, and even with advanced disease, there have been significant strides.

"A cancer diagnosis does not have to mean the end of anything," says Dr. Brooks. "It can be viewed as the first chapter in a new phase of life. Many people, after going through this experience, actually find themselves in a better place emotionally, spiritually, sometimes even physically, than before that diagnosis. A lot of how well you do in your recovery is up to you taking on both the physical and emotional challenges and trying to move forward. So keep moving forward."

reviewed 5/14/2019

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