Colorectal Cancer Association of Canada - CCAC
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Living with Colorectal Cancer

Any cancer diagnosis is traumatic. Your diagnosis will change your life, but it doesn’t have to take over your life. You can control many aspects of this challenging journey. One of the keys to keeping colorectal cancer in perspective is learning ways to manage the way it affects your physical and emotional life. Staying strong - physically and mentally - will let you keep living your life while you are on treatment and beyond. Remember there are many survivors out there. And don’t think you have to go through this alone. You have your family and friends, your medical support team, and others who have lived through this experience to rely on. Have someone come to medical appointments with you to help you make sense of what is happening. Take advantage of friends’ offers to help you with the day-to-day activities. Having someone help with your shopping or dropping off dinner can make a big difference. Below you’ll find some facts and tips about keeping yourself healthy - body and soul - during your treatment and beyond.

Activity

Staying physically active is good for you. Exercise is important - it can help raise your energy levels and improve your emotional overall well-being. But don’t think you have to train to run a marathon to receive the benefits. Activities as simple as walking or gardening can do the trick. Anything that gets you moving can give you a boost, increase your appetite, and decrease your stress level. Group activities such as golfing or curling give you the added benefit of being with other people while staying active.

Listen to your body and don’t overexert yourself. Do what feels right. Exercise only if it feels right to you and rest often. You might want to ask your doctor or nurse for suggestions about what type of activity might be best for you.

Medications

Certain medications, such as acetylsalicylic acid (ASA) and over-the-counter heartburn medications, may interfere with your cancer treatment. Before you take any medication, check with your doctor or nurse to make sure it won’t react negatively with your cancer treatment. You may be on several different drugs as part of your cancer treatment. If there is ever a medical emergency, the medical staff will need to know what medications you are taking. Having a list of the medications that you are currently taking makes answering their questions a lot easier. Keep a credit-card sized list in your wallet or purse and update it as needed. It’s a good idea to give a copy to the person who will likely be accompanying you to appointments or during emergencies.

Dental Health

If you need dental work completed, let your dentist know that you have been receiving or are about to receive treatment for cancer. Also let your doctor or nurse know that you are planning a dental appointment. Your dentist may want to have your blood count checked before doing anything. If your blood counts are low, he or she may decide to delay dental work.

Mental Health and Depression

Part of your physical well-being depends on your emotional well-being - when you feel mentally and emotionally healthy, you are better prepared to take on the challenges facing your body. And living with cancer can be an emotional challenge. You may be thinking about questions concerning life and death, and examining your relationships with the people around you. For some cancer patients, the emotional challenges of fighting cancer can lead to feelings of deep sadness or depression. Concern and anxiety over the cancer can also trigger depression. The medications prescribed may cause mood swings. Regardless of how it is caused, seek help when you are feeling down. Your support team recognizes that fighting cancer can be a tough emotional battle, and they can help. Don’t be afraid to talk to them about how you are feeling.

Diet

You may find that your appetite changes during treatment. You may feel like eating more or less than before. Stress or the medications you are taking may be the cause. You may also notice a change in how some foods taste. Some chemotherapy patients find that some foods will have a metallic taste.

Part of keeping healthy is eating a well-balanced diet. When you eat well, you will feel more energetic, giving you the strength you need to cope. In addition, eating a well-balanced diet will help you maintain an ideal weight. If you are trying to lose weight, it is recommended that you wait until after you’ve finished cancer treatment. At that point, you should talk to your nurse or doctor if it’s appropriate to start losing weight, and how.

If you find that your appetite has decreased, here are a few tips that might help you ensure you have the energy you need:

  • Eat small meals throughout the day instead of three large meals. Whenever you are feeling hungry, eat something; keep healthy snacks available.
  • To encourage your appetite, take a walk or do some exercise before your meal.
  • Avoid coffee and tea. Drink milk, milkshakes or juice.
  • If you find that meat has a bitter taste, you may want to try marinating (soaking) it in soy sauce, fruit juice, or wine vinegar before cooking. Eating with plastic cutlery instead of metal cutlery may also help. If the bitter taste persists or you don’t want to eat meat, try eating other foods that are rich in protein: chicken, dairy goods, ham, eggs, fish, nuts, seeds, legumes, tofu, or soy beverages are all good alternatives.
  • Consult one of the many cancer-related cookbooks available - ask your dietitian for a recommendation.
  • If you find that your appetite has increased, talk to your doctor, nurse, or dietitian about how you can control any potential weight gain.

Appearance

Some cancer treatments may make some patients feel less physically attractive. Fatigue, hair loss, skin problems, or brittle nails seem to conspire against you. The good news is that these side effects are temporary - they won’t stay around much longer than the end of your treatment. There are also ways to manage some of these changes. Ask your medical team about how to take care of your skin during cancer treatment.

Look Good Feel Better® is a free, national public service program that helps women with cancer learn how to cope with appearance-related side effects of their treatment. If you want to learn more about their beauty workshops and consultations, call 1-800-914-5665 or go to www.lookgoodfeelbetter.org.

If you are having chemotherapy, ask your doctor or nurse if the drugs you will be taking involve a risk of hair loss. If so, you may want to plan in advance what you want to do: some patients cover their heads with scarves, hats or wigs; others decide not do anything at all. The choice is yours. Talk to your nurse if you are interested in buying a wig - he or she can help you locate a store that has experience with cancer patients, and find out if you qualify for a tax credit or insurance claim for your wig.

Sex and Sexuality

Your body will go through some changes during your treatment. Though these changes may not be visible, you may feel different. For some colorectal cancer patients, cancer treatment can be very stressful or tiring and they may have a decreased interest in sex. For other colorectal cancer patients, their sexual drive may be the same as before cancer treatment. Still, others may find that the experience has brought them closer to their partner. Just as your response to treatment is individual, your feelings towards sex are your own. If you are finding that your sexual drive is less than usual, know that this is probably temporary. Cancer treatment can take a particularly heavy toll on your body and it might take a little bit of time for you to feel "back to normal" again. Talk to your partner and let him or her know how you’re feeling; keeping the lines of communication open at this time is very important.

Women may have a feeling of vaginal dryness, burning, or itchiness that results from chemotherapy. Using a personal lubricant may help you feel more comfortable, especially during sexual intercourse. Irregular menstrual cycles are another side effect of chemotherapy. Some women may find that their menstrual periods stop altogether. Once chemotherapy stops, it is possible that regular menstrual periods may begin again.

Pregnancy and Fertility

Becoming pregnant during your cancer treatment is not recommended because the drugs or other treatments may harm the unborn child. If there is a chance that you may become pregnant, it is important to use some form of birth control. Talk to your doctor or nurse about the best birth control options for you and your partner.

If you are thinking of having children in the future, there are few things you should know. The long term effects of chemotherapy may include sterility or premature menopause. The risk of this happening varies with the type of chemotherapy you receive and your age. Talk to your doctor to find out more about your own risks and if you should consider sperm banking or egg harvesting.

Staying out of the Sun

Undergoing chemotherapy and radiation make you more sensitive to the sun; therefore, it is important that you use sun protection. This includes using sun block or sunscreen (minimum SPF 15), and wearing a wide-brimmed hat, long-sleeved tops, and long pants, as well as sunglasses.

Be especially careful to protect yourself from the sun during radiation therapy and for six months following your therapy.

Work

How soon you feel ready to return to work is up to you. If you are having chemotherapy, you may want to wait until you’ve finished 1 to 2 months of treatment to see how it affects you. You may find that you need to take a little more time off, or perhaps very little at all. Every patient has a different reaction to cancer treatment. Listen to your body and take enough time to recover. That way you’ll be in good shape when you return to work.

Some patients feel that they can work while going through chemotherapy. This is something you should discuss with your doctor. You must be careful not to overdo it to the extent that you run yourself down. In addition, since your immune system is affected by the course of treatment, you should avoid contact with people with colds.

Cancer in Remission

Living in remission seems like a victory, but not a complete one. Having to deal with the uncertainty of cancer returning can be very stressful - no one wants to think that they will have to fight cancer a second or third time. The most important thing you can do is to take care of yourself. Do what you can to live a healthy lifestyle, and listen to your doctor’s advice about medical check-ups. Part of feeling healthy is paying attention to any concerns that you have about cancer returning. You may want to talk to your friends and family about these concerns. Or, talking to patients "who have been there" may help. Ask your doctor or nurse about getting in touch with a patient group or counsellor.