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 forms of cancer. Rectal cancer, which forms in the rectum, is found in the lowest few inches of the colon.

Abnormal cancer cells start to grow rapidly in the colon or rectum, and if not caught can spread to surrounding tissues and other parts of the body. Regular screening for colon cancer, starting at age 50 when it becomes more common, can help you catch it as early as possible.

Typically when you face colon cancer, you also face surgery. Surgery is usually the first choice for colon cancer treatment. It is also the most likely way to cure colon cancer. 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 serious illness. It focuses on providing you with relief from the symptoms, pain and stress of a serious illness like colon cancer. The goal is to improve quality of life for both you and your family.

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

Palliative care helps with relieving colon cancer symptoms. Palliative care specialists also help you to understand complex medical information, and to match your treatment choices to your personal needs and goals. In all ways, your palliative care team helps you to better cope with the challenges of living with colon cancer.

Treating Colon Cancer Symptoms—How Palliative Care Can Help

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

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

Chemotherapy can cause anemia, weakness, tiredness, hair loss, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, nerve damage and pain, and mouth sores.

Radiation therapy has side effects that include fatigue (feeling weak or tired), skin reactions, upset stomach, loose bowel movements, infertility and sexual problems. Many of these side effects can be addressed with medications. However, you will also need the care of experts in palliative symptom management, who specialize both in managing symptoms like stress and in patient-doctor communication.

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

In all of these cases, the palliative care team can help. The team specialists will focus on controlling your symptoms. This may include proper diet and nutrition, adequate fluid intake and electrolyte balance, and medical therapies aimed at resolving, managing or preventing impaction, diarrhea and other intestinal symptoms.

Your palliative care team can help you with all this and more. The team will be your sounding board and your first line of defense against any symptoms of pain, discomfort, depression or anxiety.

The palliative care specialists will help you and your loved ones to make both large and small decisions. They will enhance communication between you, your family and your other doctors, and help you to clarify your goals for care.

How to Get Palliative Care

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

Although living with colon cancer is a difficult journey, your burden may be eased and the best possible quality of life achieved when palliative care is involved.

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.