10 Things An Oncologist Wants You To Know About Colon Cancer

by Elizabeth Millard Health Writer

Getting a diagnosis of colon cancer can feel overwhelming. But there are some key facts and strategies to keep in mind that can make living with the condition feel more manageable. Paul Oberstein, M.D., director of gastrointestinal medical oncology at NYU Langone's Perlmutter Cancer Center, offers 10 tips about what you should know when living with colon cancer.

Doctors discussing medical care.

Expect a multi-discipline approach to colon cancer diagnosis and treatment

Colon cancer is a complex disease, and it’s best to have multiple specialists available to help plan treatment, says Dr. Oberstein. That might include medical oncologists, surgeons, radiation oncologists, oncology nurses. As you’re going through treatment, it’s likely your care team will expand to include others like nutritionists and therapists. “Think of this as a team effort,” he notes. “Everyone plays a part, including you, so be active in getting help and opinions from multiple experts.”

Couple at doctors.

Expand your care team

Social support can’t be underestimated, according to Dr. Oberstein. Having friends and family members come to doctor visits, chemo sessions, or hospitalizations can enhance feelings of calm and strength. Also, asking someone to take notes for you during office visits can be useful, notes Dr. Oberstein, as it gives you more of an opportunity to connect with your physician.

Family tree.

Talk about your family history

Some colon cancer types run in families, Dr. Oberstein says, which means it’s important to talk with your doctors about family health history. Although this seems as if it would be covered in a standard visit, he’s often seen that people forget to mention that a close relative had the cancer. Keeping family history in mind is also helpful for others in your family, such as children and grandchildren, because it may lead to earlier screenings for those family members.

Support group.

Connect with others who have colon cancer

Whether in person or online, support groups for those who have the same condition that you do can be helpful, says Dr. Oberstein. Even if you have a strong network of family and friends as caregivers, there is a distinctive comfort that comes from talking with people who are going through the same experience that you’re navigating. Dr. Oberstein says that people find they can share feelings more easily with others who have cancer, and also get more resources and information from them.

Woman eating while working on the computer.

Focus on your diet

Work with a nutritionist to come up with a plan that works for you in terms of long-term diet changes, says Dr. Oberstein: “Diet matters quite a bit when it comes to risk of colon cancer and recurrence, so it’s worth spending the time to learn what a good diet is for you.” Keep in mind that there isn’t a one-meal-plan-fits-all approach, especially if you’ve had part of your colon removed. That’s why consulting with a nutrition professional is an important part of the process.

Drinking a glass of water with lemon.

Moderate or eliminate alcohol

In addition to eating in a healthier way, Dr. Oberstein suggests decreasing or eliminating alcohol as well, even if you’re in remission. The American Cancer Society points out that alcohol has been linked to colon cancer, as well as cancers of the throat, breast, liver, esophagus, larynx, and mouth. Tobacco can heighten the risks even more, so Dr. Oberstein advises patients to try quitting the smokes as well as moderating or booting the booze.

Senior man taking a water break while out for a walk.

Exercise is a crucial part of living with colon cancer

Numerous studies have found that people who exercise when they have cancer, and during remission, do better in a number of ways compared to people who don’t, according to Dr. Oberstein. Even just a 30-minute walk daily can lead to better quality of life and lower chance of recurrence. “We have seen this over and over,” he says. “People who make it a priority to stay active have better outcomes.”

Doctor discussing clinical trial options with senior male patient.

Clinical trials may be an option for you

Particularly for those who have advanced forms of colon cancer, clinical trials may come into play, so it’s helpful to talk with your doctor about what that type of option might entail. Keep in mind that clinical trials are voluntary, so you wouldn’t be placed in one without your approval, and they don’t promise miracle cures, says Dr. Oberstein. But depending on your cancer type and situation, they may be a strong option for treatment that’s worth considering, he adds.

Doctor discussing colonoscopy results with female patient.

You still need to undergo colon cancer screening even if you’re in remission

Even if you’ve been treated for colon cancer and given the all-clear, that doesn’t mean you’re exempt from screenings in the future. That tends to be a common misconception, Dr. Oberstein says. Talk with your doctor about what type of screening schedule to expect — if you have a family history, for instance, you’ll likely be screened more often than someone who doesn’t.


Complementary therapies like acupuncture can be helpful

At many cancer centers and hospitals throughout the country, complementary therapies — such as acupuncture, reiki, and yoga — are offered as a way to help reduce chemotherapy side effects, improve pain management, and lower stress levels. “We’ve seen acupuncture be highly effective for reducing and sometimes eliminating neuropathy,” Dr. Oberstein. “These therapies can be a great addition to a treatment and management plan.”

Elizabeth Millard
Meet Our Writer
Elizabeth Millard

Elizabeth Millard is a freelance journalist specializing in health, wellness, fitness, and nutrition. Her articles have appeared in SELF, Men’s Health, CNN, MyFitnessPal, and WebMD, and she has worked on patient education materials for Mayo Clinic and UnitedHealth Group. She’s also a registered yoga teacher and organic farmer.