After Colon Cancer Surgery: How To Live With an Ostomy

As you discuss colon cancer treatment with your colorectal surgeon, one important topic that you may need to bring up is whether you will need an ostomy. Some people quickly adapt to an ostomy while others require additional time and support. In any case, knowing whether you will require an ostomy before the procedure can help you prepare for life with an ostomy after the procedure.

What is an ostomy?

An ostomy is an alternate way for waste to leave the body. During your colon cancer surgery, the cancer and part of your large intestine will be removed. When an ostomy is needed, your colorectal surgeon will create a new opening in your abdomen called a stoma and connect the healthy intestine to that new opening. Waste will then flow out of the stoma into an ostomy bag.

Will I need an ostomy?

In some cases, the healthy ends of the intestine that remain can be reconnected—no ostomy is required. However, in many cases patients will need to have an ostomy for at least a short time. Uncommonly, a patient’s ostomy will be permanent. Your colorectal surgeon can help you understand which of these is most likely for your specific circumstances.

Life can be the same with an ostomy

From the very first conversation about ostomy, it is important to understand and remember that you can still work, go to school, and take part in the activities you enjoy. With proper preparation and management, you can enjoy life with an ostomy the same way you did before the ostomy. Modern ostomy bags and stoma devices are so discreet that people probably will never know about your ostomy unless you tell them.

Lean on your stoma nurse

If you do require an ostomy, even for a short while, it is helpful to understand what is involved with the device and the process. The best place to start is by talking to an ostomy nurse or stoma nurse. These highly trained and caring professionals can train you how to care for your stoma, discreetly use ostomy bags, and participate in the activities you desire. They can also expertly answer all of your stoma-related questions. If an ostomy is even a possibility in your surgery, it is best to meet with the stoma nurse before your procedure when possible. If you cannot meet with your stoma nurse before surgery, make a point to do so before you leave the surgery center.

Stoma and ostomy FAQ

What can I do with an ostomy?

You might be surprised at all of the things you can do with an ostomy—running, swimming, bathing—but you will not be able to do some things with an ostomy. As a rule, any activity that puts considerable strain on your abdomen is discouraged. These activities are things like lifting heavy weights and high contact sports. If you are considering an activity that may affect your abdomen, talk to your doctor or stoma nurse about it ahead of time. The better question is what can’t you do with an ostomy?

Will my ostomy smell?

While many new ostomy patients worry about odors and smells, most patients with properly secured ostomies never have a problem. Ostomy devices are designed to be closed systems that are sealed around your stoma. The bag can be reinforced by using high-quality medical tape such as Hy-Tape. Moreover, newer devices contain odor filters that add further protection. Lastly, anti-odor products (e.g. odor neutralizers, fragrances, essential oils) can be used in the ostomy bag to neutralize odors.

Will I need to change my diet?

Most people can return to the same diet they ate before the ostomy (though if you had an unhealthy diet before your surgery, maybe now is the right time to start a healthy diet?). Ideally, you should try to drink plenty of fluids and eat the recommended daily allowance of fiber. The goal is to keep your bowels moving regularly yet without causing gassiness and bloating. (learn more about diet and ostomy)

How do I care for my stoma?

Your stoma nurse will teach you how to clean your stoma and change your ostomy bags. The process is rather straightforward once you learn how to do it. In some cases, you may need to irrigate your stoma, which means using water to clean just inside the intestine. If you do need to irrigate, your stoma nurse will show you how this is done. It is common for a new stoma to become slightly red and inflamed. This is especially true if patients use harsh detergents to clean their stomas. Conversely, keeping the stoma clean and dry is the best way to avoid irritation. If your stoma does become inflamed, cleaning it with water, gently and thoroughly drying it, and applying a barrier cream will usually help. Talk to your stoma nurse about the kinds of topical products that are safe to use with your type of ostomy bag. (read more about stoma care)

How do I make sure my ostomy bag is securely fastened?

Ostomy bags are designed to fit securely over the stoma. This connection will hold for activities like sitting at a desk, watching TV on the couch, or even casual walking. However, experienced ostomy patients usually prefer additional protection against their ostomy bag coming loose. Patients want to engage in brisk walking, dancing, hugging loved ones, or even sleeping without the worry of their ostomy bag coming loose. Thus, most patients get into the habit of using medical tape to secure their ostomy bags.

Hy-Tape – better known as “the pink tape” — is ideal for securing ostomy bags. Hy-Tape is the perfect combination of strong and gentle. The pink tape holds strong during a midnight run or loving embrace. It’s also waterproof, so it can stand up to sweat and a dip in the pool. On the other hand, Hy-Tape has a zinc oxide-based adhesive that is gentle and soothing on the delicate skin around a stoma. Pink tape can be removed cleanly and without traumatizing the skin. This protects the skin from the trauma of frequent ostomy bag changes. Be sure to ask your stoma nurse about securing your ostomy bag with Hy-Tape.

View our ostomy video.