Colon Cancer and Palliative Care

Understanding Colon Cancer

Colon cancer is cancer in the tissues of the colon, in the lower part of the large intestine. It is one of the most common types of cancer.

Abnormal cancer cells start to grow quickly in the colon or rectum. if the cancer is not caught early, they can spread to other parts of the body. Starting at age 50 when it becomes more common, regular screening for colon cancer can help you catch it as early as possible.

Surgery is usually the first choice for colon cancer treatment. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy may also be ordered. Your doctor may use these to help manage, control or slow the spread of the disease.

Understanding Palliative Care

Palliative (pronounced “pal-lee-uh-tiv”) care is specialized medical care for people with a serious illness such as colon cancer. Palliative care focuses on providing you with relief from the symptoms and stress of the illness. The goal is to improve quality of life for both you and your family.

Palliative care is provided by a specially trained team of doctors, nurses and social workers who work together with your other doctors to provide an extra layer of support. It is appropriate at any age and at any stage of your illness, and you can have it together with curative treatment.

Palliative care helps with relieving colon cancer symptoms. Palliative care specialists also help you match your treatment choices to your personal needs and goals.

Treating Colon Cancer Symptoms —How Palliative Care Can Help

Surgery for colon cancer can cause pain and tenderness in the area of the surgery. Both colon cancer and the colon cancer treatments can also cause bowel impactions or blockages of the large intestine. This can make it impossible for your body to empty the bowel and get rid of waste in the usual way.

Blockages such as these can cause you to have a lot of physical distress. They may require surgery and sometimes an ostomy (surgical hole in the skin) to redirect the waste. This can have an impact on quality of life, as well as on self-image.

Other symptoms of colon cancer include constipation, diarrhea, bleeding in the stool, proctitis (painful swelling of the rectum due to tumor or radiation), abdominal pain, changes in bowel habits, or other problems with the intestinal tract.

The Side Effects of Colon Cancer Treatment—How Palliative Care Can Help

The side effects of treatment can also cause distress. Chemotherapy can cause anemia, weakness, tiredness, hair loss, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, nerve damage and pain, and mouth sores.

Radiation therapy also has side effects. These include fatigue (feeling weak or tired), skin reactions, upset stomach, loose bowel movements, infertility and sexual problems.

Medications can address many of these side effects. However, you will also need the expertise of the palliative care team. They specialize in managing symptoms and side effects of both the disease and the treatments.

The palliative care team can help. They will focus on controlling your symptoms. This may include diet and nutrition, fluids and electrolyte balance, and treatments to manage or prevent impactions, diarrhea and other intestinal symptoms.

Palliative care can help you with all this and more. The team will be your sounding board and your first line of defense against difficult symptoms and distress. They will also enhance communication between you and your other doctors, and they will help you clarify your goals for care.

How to Get Palliative Care

Ask your doctor for a referral to palliative care if you or a loved one has colon cancer—the earlier the better. You can receive palliative care in the hospital, at an outpatient clinic and sometimes at home.

For more information, visit Take our quiz to find out if palliative care is right for you. And find providers in your area by visiting our Palliative Care Provider Directory.

For more information on colon cancer, visit the Colorectal Cancer Alliance.

Patient Perspective: Karena’s Colon Cancer Story