Beating bowel cancer together

Emmerdale: Common questions asked about surgery for bowel cancer

In February it was revealed that Emmerdale character, Vanessa Woodfield, has bowel cancer. The soap’s superfans Medical Secretary, Lorraine Crum, and  Consultant Colorectal Surgeon from the Royal Alexandra Hospital in PaisleySusan Moug, answer some common questions about bowel cancer surgery.

Does every bowel cancer patient have surgery?

Surgery is a very common treatment for bowel cancer, but it’s not suitable for everyone. Treatment depends on what kind of bowel cancer the patient may have, where it is located in the bowel and what stage the cancer is (this information comes from scans like CT or MRI).

Vanessa has stage 3 bowel cancer, which means it has spread to the lymph nodes. This week she’ll be having surgery, where the surgeon will be aiming to take all the bowel cancer out and all the lymph nodes too. Vanessa has also been informed that she may need to have chemotherapy.

How long does bowel cancer surgery take?

At least two to three hours, but can be much longer depending on what part of the bowel the cancer is located. For example, rectal cancers are usually in the pelvis where as you can imagine, the surgeon has to work in a narrow space that can mean a longer time to operate. Thankfully, Vanessa will not know how long it takes as she will be asleep (under general anaesthetic).

How long will it take to recover from surgery?

Recovery will start immediately after surgery. As part of the enhanced recovery after surgery programme, Vanessa will be encouraged on day one to eat and drink and move about, sitting in a chair and beyond. If you’re having surgery for bowel cancer, your hospital will give you information about this programme which is to help the body recover quicker and get home earlier.

Once home Vanessa should continue this approach. She should try and be active when she feels good, and rest when she feels tired. She could walk to the cornershop (David’s shop) or visit Charity in the Woolpack. 

Can I go back to work after surgery?

Returning to work is difficult to be accurate about so we usually say two - four months as a rough guide. Although Vanessa is around 40 years old and in good health, she works as a vet, so she will have to be fully recovered to do the physical aspects of that job. However, if your job is not as physically demanding or you can go back to work on lighter duties or part-time, then you may get back to work sooner than you thought.

What’s a stoma and will I need to have one?

There is always a possibility of a stoma with any kind of bowel cancer surgery. Your surgeon will have an idea from where the bowel cancer is located whether or not you may need one. A stoma (or bag) is where a piece of bowel is brought out onto the skin and poo comes from that into a bag placed over it to catch. 

There are different types (colostomy and ileostomy) and they may be temporary (where the bag can be removed and with surgery the bowel is put back together). Vanessa has mentioned that she may need an ileostomy that might be temporary and this is usually done to let the other end of the bowel heal. It is most common where rectal cancer surgery has been performed. 

For other patients a stoma can be permanent. Each patient should be aware that this may not restrict their recovery or everyday living and they can still carry on with activities like swimming, travelling or sex. All patients should have a full and honest discussion with their healthcare professionals about stomas to ensure good planning to reduce their anxieties. 

Will I have scars after my surgery?

You will but only as big or small as they need to be. Whether you have keyhole or open surgery, your surgeon will do their best to make sure the scars are as nice as they can be for you.

Is there anything people should do to help prepare for surgery?

You may be offered a prehabilitation programme. This is where you will be asked to get yourself into shape before surgery. This might be as simple as increasing your daily step count or doing breathing exercises. If your surgeon wants you to do this it is because it may make the surgery easier for you and the recovery shorter. If you can stop smoking before treatment too - that can help your recovery. Vanessa is still going to work at the moment and plans to do this right up until she goes in for her surgery.


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