Colorectal Cancer

Colostomy after bowel cancer surgery

A colostomy is a surgical procedure in which the end of the bowel is brought out onto the abdomen (tummy) so that bowel movements can be collected in a bag worn over the opening or stoma. It functions once or twice a day and the bag has to be changed that often.

Colostomies can be temporary or permanent. This depends on the position of the cancer and whether it is possible for the surgeon to reconnect the bowel once the cancer has been removed and healing has taken place. Some people have their temporary colostomies reversed after a few weeks while others have to wait much longer. Occasionally, complications such as adhesions (a build-up of scar tissue) occur which mean that reversal proves impossible and the colostomy must become permanent.

For someone whose bowel function has lowered their quality of life, a permanent colostomy can bring positive change. One man, who underwent surgery to remove his tumour but was not given a colostomy in the first instance, experienced years of complications, distress and discomfort before choosing to have a permanent colostomy. He explains how the colostomy improved his life. Another man who has a permanent colostomy and, for 8 months, also had a temporary ileostomy, explains why he finds the colostomy easy to live with by comparison.

Some people learn to live with a permanent colostomy very quickly and find that it has little impact on their lifestyle. For others, emotional distress or practical difficulties with managing the stoma may prolong the period of adjustment. Some people never feel comfortable with their colostomy and may become isolated by the loss of social confidence.

One woman decided to use colonic irrigation as an alternative after having a colostomy for several years because it helped her feel more in control of her life. Some people with temporary colostomies adjusted to them easily and quickly resumed their normal activities. One woman organised and appeared smartly dressed at a 50th birthday party for her husband less than 2 weeks after leaving hospital. 

Another man explains how well he could manage his colostomy despite minor fears and the occasional mishap. Others learned to cope with their colostomies but never felt comfortable with them and eagerly awaited their reversal operations.

Sometimes complications mean that reversal operations are impossible. One man explains how he coped with the disappointment when this happened to him and describes how he developed a more positive attitude toward his colostomy under the circumstances. 

Specialist stoma nurses help people learn to manage their colostomies and there are national organisations that help people who have or are about to have a colostomy.

For more on reversal operations see 'Stoma reversal operations'.

For more on colostomy see' 'Learning to manage a stoma'; 'Daily living with a stoma'; 'Sexuality and relationships with a stoma'; 'Feelings about having a stoma'; and 'Information and support for stoma patients'.

Last reviewed August 2016.

Last updated August 2016.

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