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Colon cancer surgery: what to expect and what to prepare for

Washington University School of Medicine

When it comes to colon cancer, surgery is the most common treatment. Types of colon cancer surgery depend on the stage of the cancer and where the cancer is in the colon. For early-stage colon cancers, surgeons may recommend minimally invasive surgery. For more advanced colon cancers, surgery may be performed to remove parts of the colon or to reconnect healthy parts of the colon. All types of colon cancer surgery involve the removal of nearby lymph nodes where the cancer may have spread.

How to prepare for colon cancer surgery

Prior to your surgery, there are steps you’ll need to take to prepare.

A week or more before your surgery:

  • Make a list of all your medications.
  • Make a list of any allergies you have.
  • Ask your surgeon about when you should stop taking your medications. Don’t stop taking your medications without speaking to your surgeon.
  • Fill any prescriptions you will need after surgery.
  • Ask your surgeon if it’s safe to take ibuprofen or aspirin.
  • Arrange for family or friends to help you while you’re in the hospital and when you go home.

24 hours before your surgery:

  • Don’t eat any solid foods and drink only clear liquids.
  • You may be advised not to eat or drink anything (including water) after midnight. Ask your nursing team about the specific eating and drinking guidelines you’ll need to follow the night before surgery.
  • Your colon must be completely empty before the procedure. You may need to use laxatives and/or enemas to get all the stool out of your colon. Follow your surgeon’s “bowel prep” instructions.

The day of surgery and your hospital stay

When you arrive at the hospital for your surgery, you will be escorted to the pre-op area to prepare for the operation. A nurse will take your vital signs and will insert an IV to administer fluids, including antibiotics to decrease the risk of infection, anesthetic medications and pain medications. You’ll also meet with an anesthesiologist who will review your medical history, speak with you about your safety during surgery, go over the type of anesthesia you’ll receive and answer any questions you may have. Your family and/or friends will then go to the waiting room, where they will remain throughout the procedure.

Once the surgery is over, you will be taken to the recovery room. You will stay in recovery anywhere from one to two hours. Then, you will be transferred to your room once you’re in stable condition.

You may stay in the hospital for two to five days after surgery. Depending on whether you have minimally invasive surgery or open surgery, your hospital stay may be shorter or longer. While you’re in the hospital, your nurses will teach you how to care for yourself during the recovery process.

Discharge and going home

Right after surgery, you will need to be on a clear liquid diet. Then, the day after surgery, you will get back to a regular diet. A dietitian will be available to help you while you’re in the hospital. Additionally, your nurses and physical therapists will help you move around and will teach you deep breathing and leg exercises. These exercises will help you regain mobility and improve your circulation.

Before discharging you from the hospital, your surgeon will write your prescriptions and give you written discharge instructions. Your surgeon will be sure to review these with you before you leave. Again, because medication and anesthetic can slow your reaction time and thought processes, make sure you have someone to drive you home.

Recovery at home

Once you’re home, you will be encouraged to steadily increase your activity level. Avoid strenuous activity – walking helps to prevent blood clots and keep your lungs clear, though you can climb steps and engage in light activity as soon as you feel up to it. Don’t take baths or submerge yourself in water until your incisions have healed.

Your surgeon will schedule a follow-up appointment after your surgery, but it’s a good idea to contact your surgeon right away if you experience any of the following:

  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Fever
  • Diarrhea
  • Wound is red, more painful or has drainage
  • No bowel movement within a few days of returning home

The Siteman approach to colon cancer surgery

With expert physicians, skilled support staff and the latest technology, we ensure that our colon cancer surgery patients receive the comprehensive care they need.

Our surgeons were the first in the region to perform laparoscopic colectomy for cancer. They use minimally invasive and robotic techniques whenever possible, making the recovery process easier while keeping risks down.

Our colon cancer specialist team

The colon cancer specialist team at Siteman comprises outstanding Washington University medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, surgeons, gastroenterologists, radiologists and others. The diverse expertise of our specialists allows them to create individualized treatment plans for all colon cancer patients.

While many colon cancers may be treated with surgery alone, some are treated with a combination of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. Not all colon cancer patients will undergo the same course of treatment, so it’s important to have a team of providers across a wide range of disciplines.

You’ve been diagnosed with colon cancer. Now what?

If you’ve been diagnosed with colon cancer, you may be experiencing a wave of emotions including fear, anger and sadness. Siteman providers are here to support you every step of the way throughout your cancer journey. With our exceptional physicians, psychology services and survivorship care, we are committed to caring for your body, mind and wellness, even after treatment ends.

If you are experiencing symptoms of colon cancer and are concerned about your risk, please make an appointment with your primary care provider. If you have been diagnosed with colon cancer and would like a second opinion from a colon cancer specialist at Siteman, please call 800-600-3606.