Supportive care for colorectal cancer

Supportive care helps people meet the physical, practical, emotional and spiritual challenges of colorectal cancer. It is an important part of cancer care. There are many programs and services available to help meet the needs and improve the quality of life of people living with cancer and their loved ones, especially after treatment has ended.

Recovering from colorectal cancer and adjusting to life after treatment is different for each person, depending on the stage of the cancer, the organs and tissues removed during surgery, the type of treatment and many other factors. The end of cancer treatment may bring mixed emotions. Even though treatment has ended, there may be other issues to deal with, such as coping with long-term side effects. A person who has been treated for colorectal cancer may have the following concerns.

Self-esteem and body image

How a person feels about themselves is called self-esteem. Body image is how a person sees their own body. Colorectal cancer and its treatments can affect a person’s self-esteem and body image. Often this is because cancer or cancer treatments may result in body changes, such as:

  • scars
  • skin problems
  • changes in body weight
  • having a colostomy or an ileostomy

Some of these changes can be temporary. Others will last for a long time or be permanent.

Find out more about how to cope with problems of self-esteem and body image.

Living with a colostomy or ileostomy

A colostomy creates a stoma (artificial opening) from the colon to the outside of the body through the abdominal wall. An ileostomy creates a stoma from the ileum to the outside of the body through the abdominal wall. A colostomy or ileostomy can be temporary or permanent.

Not everyone with colorectal cancer will need a colostomy or ileostomy.

It takes time and patience to learn how to live with a colostomy or ileostomy and care for the stoma. Specially trained nurses will teach you and your family how to care for and live with your ostomy. These nurses are called wound, ostomy and continence (WOC) nurses. Local or national ostomy groups and associations can also give you support and information.

Find out more about colostomy and ileostomy.


Maintaining proper nutrition is an important part of life after colorectal cancer, especially because cancer and its treatments affect the digestive system. Most people can eat their normal diet after surgery and other treatments for colorectal cancer.

Some people may need to adjust their diet because they have the following problems, which can affect their nutrition. Ask your healthcare team for a referral to a dietitian.

Find out more about eating well after treatment.


Diarrhea is a common problem for people who have a bowel resection. Diarrhea is more likely to happen if a large amount of the large intestine is removed.

Your large intestine normally absorbs water. When part of your large intestine, including the colon, is removed, it can’t absorb water normally. This leads to diarrhea. Having diarrhea because some of your intestine has been removed is called short bowel syndrome.

You can help manage diarrhea by making changes to your diet. Limiting certain foods and drinks, such as greasy foods, high-fibre foods, coffee, tea and alcohol, can help prevent diarrhea. Medicines may be given to help manage diarrhea.

Find out more about diarrhea.


Surgery to treat colorectal cancer can change the structure and function of the intestine. The intestine can become narrow after a bowel resection. Muscles and nerves could also be damaged during surgery. These changes can affect the normal formation of food waste (stool or poop) and its movement through the large intestine, leading to constipation.

You can help manage constipation by drinking lots of fluids every day and being physically active. Laxatives and enemas can also be used to manage constipation.

Find out more about constipation.


Some treatments for colorectal cancer can cause sexual problems or make sex difficult. Some people may lose interest in having sex around the time of diagnosis and during treatment.

Talk to your doctor or healthcare team if sexual problems occur because of colorectal cancer and treatments. They can help you manage these problems. Some people find that counselling helps them cope with the effects that colorectal cancer and its treatments have on their sexual relationships. Sometimes medicines can help manage sexual problems.

Find out more about sexuality and cancer, sexual problems for men and sexual problems for women.

Questions to ask about supportive care

To make decisions that are right for you, ask your healthcare team questions about supportive care.

Expert review and references

  • American Cancer Society . Colorectal Cancer . 2018 :
  • American Society of Clinical Oncology. Colorectal Cancer. 2017:
  • Krebs, LU . Altered Body Image and Sexual Health. Yarbro CH, Wujcik D, & Holmes Gobel B (eds.). Cancer Symptom Management. 4th ed. Jones & Bartlett Learning; 2014: 24:507-540.
  • The Canadian Association for Enterostomal Therapy. A Guide to Living with a Colostomy. Ottawa, ON: The Canadian Association for Enterostomal Therapy; 2007.
  • The Canadian Association for Enterostomal Therapy. A Guide to Living with an Ileostomy. Ottawa, ON: The Canadian Association for Enterostomal Therapy; 2007.
  • Wilkes GM . Colon, rectal, and anal cancers. Yarbro CH, Wujcki D, Holmes Gobel B, (eds.). Cancer Nursing: Principles and Practice. 8th ed. Burlington, MA: Jones and Bartlett Learning; 2018: 51: 1423 - 1485.

Medical disclaimer

The information that the Canadian Cancer Society provides does not replace your relationship with your doctor. The information is for your general use, so be sure to talk to a qualified healthcare professional before making medical decisions or if you have questions about your health.

We do our best to make sure that the information we provide is accurate and reliable but cannot guarantee that it is error-free or complete.

The Canadian Cancer Society is not responsible for the quality of the information or services provided by other organizations and mentioned on, nor do we endorse any service, product, treatment or therapy.

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