The side effects of rectal cancer treatment depend on the type of rectal cancer treatment used and may be different for each person. Most often rectal cancer side effects are temporary. Doctors and nurses can explain the possible side effects of treatment. Patients should report severe rectal cancer treatment side effects to their doctor. Doctors can suggest ways to help relieve symptoms that may occur during and after treatment.
Rectal Cancer Surgery Side Effects
It takes time to heal after surgery, and the time needed to recover after rectal cancer is different for each person. Patients are often uncomfortable during the first few days. However, medicine can usually control their pain. Before surgery, patients should discuss the plan for pain relief with the doctor or nurse. After rectal cancer surgery, the doctor can adjust the plan if more pain relief is needed.
It is common to feel tired or weak for a while. Also, surgery sometimes causes constipation or diarrhea. The health care team monitors the patient for signs of bleeding, infection, or other problems requiring immediate treatment.
When a section of the colon or rectum is removed, the surgeon can usually reconnect the healthy parts. However, sometimes reconnection is not possible. In this case, the surgeon creates a new path for waste to leave the body. The surgeon makes an opening (a stoma) in the wall of the abdomen, connects the upper end of the intestine to the stoma, and closes the other end. The operation to create the stoma is called a colostomy. A flat bag fits over the stoma to collect waste, and a special adhesive holds it in place.
For most people who have a colostomy, it is temporary. It is needed only until the colon or rectum heals from surgery. After healing takes place, the surgeon reconnects the parts of the intestine and closes the stoma. Some people, especially those with a tumor in the lower rectum, need a permanent colostomy.
People who have a colostomy may have irritation of the skin around the stoma. The doctor, nurse, or enterostomal therapist can teach patients how to clean the area and prevent irritation and infection.
Side Effects of Rectal Cancer Chemotherapy
The side effects of rectal cancer chemotherapy depend mainly on the specific drugs and the dose. In general, anticancer drugs affect cells that divide rapidly, especially:
Blood cells: These cells fight infection, help the blood to clot, and carry oxygen to all parts of the body. When drugs affect blood cells, patients are more likely to get infections, bruise or bleed easily, or feel very weak and tired.
Cells in hair roots: Chemotherapy can cause hair loss. The hair grows back, but sometimes the new hair is somewhat different in color and texture.
Cells that line the digestive tract: Chemotherapy can cause poor appetite, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, or mouth and lip sores. Many of these side effects can be controlled with drugs.
Side Effects of Rectal Cancer Radiation Therapy
The side effects of radiation therapy depend mainly on the amount of radiation given and the part of the body that is treated. Side effects of rectal cancer radiation therapy to the abdomen and pelvis may include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, bloody stools, rectal leakage, or urinary discomfort. In addition, the skin in the treated area may become red, dry, and tender.
Patients are likely to become very tired during radiation therapy, especially in the later weeks of treatment. Resting is important, but doctors usually advise patients to try to stay as active as they can.
Although the side effects of radiation therapy can be distressing, the doctor can usually treat or control them.
Biological Therapy Side Effects for Rectal Cancer
Biological therapy may cause side effects that vary with the specific type of treatment. Often, treatments cause flu-like symptoms, such as chills, fever, weakness, and nausea.