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Recovering Following Bowel Surgery

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Updated June 03, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Surgery for colon cancer may impact your emotional as well as your physical health. Medical teams focus on preparing you for the bowel surgery, but you may feel a little lost or frightened once it's over. On average, a full recovery can take up to three months, however this is dependant on a few different factors such as:

Your doctor should be able to provide an indication of how long he or she thinks you will stay in the hospital to recover. The first portion of your recovery occurs in the hospital and usually requires a week to 10 days before you are discharged home.

The First Day

The most apparent changes following surgery revolve around the incision on your stomach. Immediately following surgery you may have:

  • A urinary catheter to collect urine until you can get out of bed
  • An intravenous catheter (IV) to provide fluids and pain medications
  • A small wound drain to collect fluids from around your surgical site
  • A soft plastic cannula providing extra oxygen through your nostrils
  • A blood pressure cuff, finger probe or electrodes on your chest to monitor your vital signs
  • A small tube coming out of your nose (nasogastric tube, or NG tube) to collect stomach juices and prevent vomiting

These medical apparatuses will start coming off, one-by-one, as you recover in the hospital. Unless you have a pre-existing medical condition, your doctor may order the oxygen, IV and urinary catheter discontinued the first day after surgery.

Most likely, your nurses and therapists will try to get you out of bed the day of (or following, if you had surgery late in the day) bowel surgery. It may be painful the first time, but the nurses can anticipate that discomfort and provide pain medications. The sooner you get out of bed and moving the better. Staying in bed increases your risk for:

  • Blood clots in your legs
  • Infections in your lungs (pneumonia)

Your Diet

You will not be allowed to eat or drink anything following surgery. It may take up to 24 hours before you can start – your bowels need time to rest and recover. When your doctor allows, the nurses will start your diet with ice chips and clear fluids. If you tolerate these clear liquids (no nausea or vomiting) your doctor will slowly progress your diet to a low-fat, low-fiber version of what it was before. If a large portion of your bowel was removed you may expect some diarrhea. Both diarrhea and constipation are common following bowel surgery.

Pain

The surgical incision in your abdomen will cause some discomfort, but your doctor and nurses are trained to anticipate this. Do not wait until the pain is unbearable to mention it. It's much easier to control and stop pains before they become severe. You will be sent home with a prescription for pain medication. Fill the prescription on the way home so that you will have the medication when you need it (even if you don't need it now).

Recovering at Home

The recovery process does not stop upon leaving the hospital. Your body is working hard to heal, but it needs your help. Don't try to resume your normal schedule – you are still in recovery for up to three months following your surgery. Your doctor may have sent you home with physical and dietary restrictions. Talk to your doctor before you:

  • Lift anything heavier than 10 pounds
  • Take part in any physical activity, including sexual relations
  • Change your diet or add any supplements

Following Up

At home, you are the nurse. It's your job to report any unusual findings to your doctor. The two most common complications following bowel surgery are the risk of bleeding and infection. Watch your incision site carefully and call your doctor if you notice any:

  • Bleeding
  • Redness or swelling
  • Drainage from the site
  • Increasing pain
  • Fever (temperature over 99 degrees Fahrenheit)

If you are anticipating more treatment for your colon cancer, such as radiation or chemotherapy, your doctor will wait until your body is healed from the surgery. You can help facilitate healing by:

  • Resting when you are tired
  • Resuming exercise when it's allowed
  • Eating a healthy, well-balanced diet
  • Not smoking or using tobacco

Taking Care of Your Emotional Health

Your self esteem and sexuality can take a hit following bowel surgery. Take care of your emotions by recognizing them, not minimizing them. It's normal to feel sad or grieve the change in your life, but you can use these emotions to fuel positive changes. If you didn't exercise or eat right before the cancer diagnosis, you may find yourself wanting to make a positive change in your life now. Just remember, you are the same person that you were prior to the surgery and you can make a full recovery in time.

Sources:

American Cancer Society. (2006). American Cancer Society’s Complete Guide to Colorectal Cancer. Clifton Fields, NE: American Cancer Society.

Cambridge University Hospitals. (n.d.). Major Bowel Surgery. Accessed May 25, 2012.

Colon Cancer Resource. (n.d.). Recovery from Colon Surgery. Accessed May 25, 2012.

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