Your Top 10 Questions About Colon Cancer Answered

by Stephanie Wood Health Writer

When you’ve been diagnosed with colon cancer, there are some things you just need to know right way. Will I be able to eat my favorite foods? Can I go to the gym? Is colon cancer hereditary? “Cancer is a big scary word to hear, and it is a stressful time,” acknowledges I. Emre Gorgun, M.D., a colorectal surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. “But what we can offer patients has improved significantly in the last decade and the outlook has never been better.” Read on for answers to your top questions about living with and navigating colon cancer.

Will I Be Able to Work?

“Most people tolerate chemotherapy for colorectal cancer well and can continue to lead active lives,” says Andrea Cercek, M.D., a medical oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City and a Stand Up to Cancer Colorectal Dream Team investigator. “Typically patients describe chemotherapy as having a few bad days after treatment and then feeling back to normal.” Still, you may need to modify your schedule or other aspects of your job. If your employer has at least 15 employees, you may be eligible for accommodations from the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Young women talking in coffee shop

Should I Tell My Friends and Co-workers?

When actor Chadwick Boseman recently died from colon cancer, the world was stunned to learn he had been making blockbuster movies without his co-workers knowing. “Some people feel better talking about their diagnosis and treatment, while others prefer to keep things private,” Dr. Cercek says. Whether you tell people, and how much you tell them, is entirely up to you. And even if you choose not to share, you don’t have to feel alone: HealthCentral has links to colon cancer social-media influencers you can follow for motivation and top online support communities.

Is It My Fault?

No! While blaming yourself might be a natural reaction, there is no simple reason you got cancer, and no single action that can explain why cancer occurred. Cancer is a complex disease and happens as a result of interactions between our genetic makeup and different environmental factors. “With colorectal cancer, we sometimes hear patients say, ‘I should have gotten screened sooner,’” Dr. Gorgun notes. “My response is, ‘Let’s focus on getting you better. Colon cancer is a curable disease.’”

Are My Children More Likely to Get Colon Cancer?

Not necessarily. While an estimated 147,950 adults in the U.S. are expected to be diagnosed with colon cancer in 2020, according to the National Cancer Institute, the vast majority of cases are sporadic, meaning the patient has no family history of the disease. Only about 5% of people have a hereditary form, notes David Rivadeneira, M.D., director of colorectal surgery at Huntington Hospital on Long Island, NY. Your doctor will do tests to determine the type you have and whether your kids will need increased monitoring.

Seared Trout with carrots

What Will I Be Able to Eat?

“That depends on whether you’ve had surgery or you’re on chemotherapy or, in the case of rectal cancer, radiation,” says Dr. Cercek. “These treatments can alter bowel function, and some patients have colostomies, which make eating certain foods challenging.” Treatment for colon cancer can make it more difficult for the body to absorb nutrients, so it’s more important than ever to eat a healthy, balanced diet. “Typically, we recommend a diet low in red meat, processed foods, and sugar,” Dr. Cercek says.

How Will I Afford It?

The last thing any cancer patient should have to worry about is paying for treatment. Fortunately, there are programs available to help. Many drug companies offer financial assistance to patients on their medications. Participating in a clinical trial usually means you get the treatment being tested for free, as well. The organization Fight Colorectal Cancer has a list of patient assistance programs on their site you can start with. Another option is Blue Hope Financial Assistance, a fund that can help with daily living expenses such as childcare and transportation.

Senior man stretching while jogging on a running track

Should I Continue to Exercise?

“Yes, we encourage exercise both on and off treatment,” says Dr. Cercek. “It may not be possible for patients on chemotherapy to exercise daily, but they often feel well enough to do so on their off week from treatment.” Listen to your body and don’t push yourself if you are too tired. Cancer can cause pain, numbness, weakness and balance issues, so consider seeing a physical therapist to help you create a workout plan. You can ask your doctor for a recommendation or look here for a list of physical therapists in your area.

Close up of feet entwined under covers

Can I Still Have Sex?

Yes, but you should expect changes. “There’s no limitation on sexual activity, but your sex drive may be affected by chemo or radiation. Men may also experience erectile dysfunction, and both women and men can have problems with dryness,” Dr. Gorgun says. Discuss these issues with your doctor and ask to be referred to a clinical nurse specialist, social worker, or psychologist who can help. On the plus side: “The cutting edge robotic surgeries we have now provide 3D visualization that helps us better preserve the nerves that affect sexual function,” Dr. Gorgun says.

President Ronald Reagan giving a speech at a campaign rally at the San Diego County Administration building.

I Don’t Know Any Colon Cancer Survivors, Do I?

Colon cancer doesn’t discriminate, but you likely do know some pretty famous survivors. President Ronald Reagan, TV host Sharon Osbourne, and sports stars such as third base coach of the Texas Rangers and lifelong athlete Tony Beasley, race car driver Scott Lagasse, Jr. and baseball legend Darryl Strawberry are all colon cancer survivors.

Will Cancer Affect My Mood?

The good news is that colon cancer is highly treatable. The American Cancer Society reports that the five-year survival rate is about 80%. However, even though this is wonderful news, just living with the constant stress of a cancer diagnosis can impact your mood. Sadness, anger, grief and many other feelings are common. If you or someone you love with colon cancer is experiencing a lower-than-usual mood, talk to your family, a counselor, or support group. Colon cancer patients with more social support tend to feel less anxious and depressed and report a better quality of life.

Stephanie Wood
Meet Our Writer
Stephanie Wood

Stephanie Wood is a award-winning freelance writer and former magazine editor specializing in health, nutrition, wellness, and parenting.