Managing Common Side Effects of Colorectal Cancer Treatment

Going through colorectal cancer treatment can bring several different side effects – some easier to manage than others. We hope this will help you understand more about the most common treatment side effects experienced by colorectal cancer patients and some tips that can help you minimize the effects or feel better quicker.

Colorectal Cancer Surgery Side Effects

Depending on the type of surgery you have, there may be a quick recovery with very few side effects. This is especially the case if you had only polyps removed. There are typically more side effects of colon cancer surgery if you had a section of the colon removed to take out the cancerous areas. The most common issue after colorectal cancer surgery is a slow-moving bowel. Due to anesthesia, pain medications and the procedure on your bowels, it can take a little while for them to “wake up.” This is called an ileus.  If you feel extra bloated or gassy, you’re nauseous or vomiting after surgery, or you’re constipated for a couple of days, you may have an ileus. For most patients it will go away in a few days on its own, but if not be sure to tell your surgeon. 

Common Colorectal Cancer Treatment Side Effects & Tips for Management

Listed below are some of the reported common side effects of the cancer treatments given for colon or rectal cancer. It’s important to recognize that the type of treatment you receive may affect you differently. Use this only as a guide, but talk to your oncologist about any side effects you’re having. Call the office immediately if you have a fever of more than 102 degrees. 

Loss of Appetite or Nausea 

Nausea, or feeling like you may vomit, can make it hard to eat or drink. Even if you’re not nauseous, food may not sound appetizing for periods of time during cancer treatment. Chemotherapy is the most likely treatment to produce this side effect. Even though you may not feel like eating or drinking, your body needs the energy and nutrients of the food and the hydration provided by fluids for healing and for basic body functions.

Tips to combat nausea or loss of appetite from cancer treatments

Try to drink water or electrolyte-based drinks often. If you’ve been vomiting, you need to get the hydration back into your body and electrolytes can help bring your salt levels back to normal. But even if you just don’t feel like it, try to sip regularly. Using a straw may make it easier to sip while you’re watching TV or reading. 

Keeping a little bit of food in your stomach can help you feel less nauseous. You don’t have to eat a lot but eat regularly. Once the nausea goes away try to eat more, especially healthy foods that will help your body stay strong. If you have severe nausea, inform your oncologist. They can review the anti-nausea medications that were most likely prescribed and make adjustments to your dosage.

Cancer Treatment-Induced Fatigue

Most cancer patients feel exhausted as they undergo treatment, and sometimes for months after treatment is complete. This isn’t just from chemotherapy. Many radiation therapy patients report this as a side effect. Fatigue is more than being tired. It’s an exhaustion that you can’t get rid of with a few days of rest or some good sleep. Some people may feel full-body weakness or feel as if they’re just moving slowly. Others report feeling exhausted after doing some small, everyday tasks.

Tips to help with energy levels during cancer treatment

While it may seem impossible, try to stay active and move around. Try to do light and relaxing exercises, such as chair yoga or short walks. Getting some fresh air will help you get some energy too. Some people have reported nutritional therapy, counseling, or massage therapy to be helpful in fighting fatigue from cancer treatments.

Changes to Your Skin from Cancer Treatments

Some patients experience redness or peeling like a sunburn after completing radiation therapy sessions. Radiation is also known to make the skin in the target area itchy.

Chemotherapy and immunotherapy can have similar effects on the skin with itchiness, peeling, rashes or darkening of the skin pigment reported by patients. 

Skin Care Tips While Going Through Cancer Treatment:
Similar to a Minnesota wintertime moisturizing routine, cancer patients should try to moisturize regularly. Try to avoid products with a lot of alcohol or fragrance to help avoid further irritating the skin.

Avoid taking extended showers or baths in hot water. Also, exfoliating may cause more irritation during this period of time. Try to avoid using loofahs or shower sponges that are meant to remove dead skin. These can leave your skin feeling irritated after bathing.

If you’re going to be outdoors, protect your skin from further irritation by using sunscreen. Mineral-based sunscreens contain fewer chemicals and may be easier on your skin if it’s already feeling irritated.

Hair Loss from Cancer Treatment

Not everyone loses their hair from cancer treatment. Your oncologist can tell you if the chemotherapy being used is likely to cause hair loss. If so, be prepared that you could lose your hair everywhere on your body including eyebrows. For most patients it will grow back when treatment is complete. 

Tips on How to Prepare for and Manage Hair Loss Caused

Find out if the Paxman Scalp Cooling cap could work for you. This process of keeping the scalp cool during treatment has proven to reduce hair loss. Learn more about this in our blog: Managing Chemo: How to Take Care of Yourself Before, During & After Treatment and talk to your Nurse Navigator or Chemo Nurse for more information about whether you qualify.

For those with longer hair, it may be a good idea to cut the hair shorter prior to the start of treatment. This makes the hair loss less dramatic and less of a mess to clean up.

Every Cancer Patient’s Side Effects are Different

Remember, these are just some of the most common side effects experienced by colorectal cancer patients. Everyone is different. Talk to your cancer care team about what to expect based on your individualized treatment plan. The nurses and oncologists often have some additional tips about what helps patients feel better while experiencing treatment side effects.

For colorectal cancer patients in the Twin Cities area, Minnesota Oncology’s caring staff is here to guide patients through every step of the colorectal cancer treatment process. We focus on providing world-class care and support for you and your family. Request an appointment for more information about how they can help you or a loved one. 




Recent Posts

March 29, 2023

More younger adults are being diagnosed with colon cancer — also known as colorectal cancer — and at more advanced stages of the disease, says the American Cancer Society.

March 22, 2023

On the Mayo Clinic Q&A podcast, Dr. Jones discusses his experiences caring for younger people with colorectal cancer, and why you should talk to your health care team about screening for colorectal cancer by age 45, or sooner if you're at higher risk.

March 15, 2023

I'm 46 and had my first colonoscopy last month. The doctor said everything looked good, although he removed a few polyps. Can you explain what a colon polyp is and if should I be concerned?