Surgery is the main treatment option for early stage colon cancer. The type of surgery a doctor will recommend depends on the extent of a person’s condition and can vary from minimal to major procedures.

This article describes the different types of surgery, the procedures involved, and what a person’s recovery journey may look like.

It also explains some of the financial costs and help available to fund these procedures.

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The exact procedure a doctor recommends will depend on the stage and size of the cancer.

Some surgeries can help cure colon cancer, while others may be palliative with the aim of making a person more comfortable.

The main types of surgery can include:

  • Polypectomy: Treatment for early stage colon cancer often involves this procedure. A polypectomy is a minimally invasive surgery that doctors perform using a colonoscope. Surgeons will use an electric current to cut at the base of the cancerous polyp. They may use surgical tools instead and remove surrounding tissue to avoid the spread of cancer.
  • Colectomy: This can be open surgery or a laparoscopy to remove a part of the colon or the entire colon. A surgeon may remove at least 12 nearby lymph nodes to check for cancer. A total colectomy is when a surgeon removes the entire colon. However, this is not often used to treat colon cancer and typically involves an existing condition such as inflammatory bowel disease.
  • Colostomy or ileostomy: A colostomy involves creating an opening in the abdomen called a stoma. The surgeon then brings the end of the colon through the stoma. This is where the waste will exit the body. An ileostomy is where the surgeon brings the small intestine to the opening instead of bypassing the colon and rectum. These can be temporary, while the colon heals, or permanent.

A few weeks before the surgery, a person may have an appointment to help them prepare. A person’s healthcare team will provide them with instructions about when to stop eating or drinking before the surgery.

A person may also need to stop taking some medications before the surgery. However, they should not stop taking their medications unless the doctor tells them to do so.

Before any type of colon surgery, a person will need to have a clean and empty colon. Doctors may place them on a special diet, alongside laxatives and enema procedures, to clean the colon of waste.

A person may also take antibiotics before surgery. This may vary slightly depending on the procedure they will have.

The healthcare team will be able to provide information regarding any changes to a person’s lifestyle or diet after the procedure. This may include information on ordering supplies for a colostomy bag and how to care for themselves.

For each type of surgery for colon cancer, a person will undergo a general anesthetic.

According to Cancer Research UK, depending on the type of surgery a person is having, a surgeon may perform the surgery in the following ways:

  • Open surgery: This is when the surgeon makes a single large cut down the abdomen.
  • Keyhole surgery: A surgeon will make several small incisions in the abdomen. They then pass a long tube with a light and camera through one of these incisions so they can see what they are doing. They insert the tools into the other incisions to perform the surgery. The surgeons may also use a robotic system to help them perform keyhole surgery.

After the operation, the surgeon will sew up, or suture, the incision. The size of any scars will depend on the type of surgery a person has.

A person should speak with the doctor to determine what they should expect after surgery.

Cancer Research UK notes that a person will likely experience some level of pain in the week or so after surgery. However, the doctor should provide medications to help manage this.

It is also common to have difficulty passing a stool after colon surgery. This can be due to the surgery itself or the general anesthetic.

As soon as possible, nurses and physiotherapists will help a person to move around. They may provide instructions on how to perform breathing and leg exercises. A person might be able to walk for short distances within a few days.

It may be necessary to alter a person’s diet after treatment for colon cancer. This may involve eating a soft food diet and a diet low in fiber.

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), the colon may leak if some of the new connections do not hold together effectively. A minor leak can cause a loss of appetite, while larger leaks can lead to infection and require follow-up surgery.

How long does it take to recover?

People undergoing colon cancer surgery typically require a 2–4 day stay in the hospital after the procedure.

How long it takes to recover depends on different factors that vary between individuals, including:

  • the type of procedure
  • the extent of the procedure
  • the health of the person at the time of surgery

After finishing treatment, a person will likely have follow-up visits with their doctor for many years after the procedure. This is to check that the cancer does not return or to manage any side effects.

The frequency of these visits will depend on the stage of cancer at diagnosis and the individual risk a person has of cancer returning.

If there are no signs of cancer returning, a doctor may recommend the following procedures after surgery:

  • colonoscopy 1 year after surgery, then every 5 years
  • proctoscopy every 3–6 months
  • imaging tests such as CT scans every 6 months to a year

Most people who undergo surgery for colon cancer can return to an active life.

A doctor may recommend dietary and lifestyle changes that can help prevent cancer from returning to the colon. These include:

According to a study from 2021, the cure rate for those with stage 1, 2, or 3 colorectal cancer who underwent surgery ranged from 50–95%. This is less likely if the person has a very large tumor or cancer that spreads to the lymph nodes.

The 5-year relative survival rate for colorectal cancer is 65%. This means a person with colorectal cancer has a 65% chance of living for another 5 years after receiving the diagnosis compared to someone without the condition.

Many factors affect this, including the individual’s health and the stage of cancer at diagnosis.

Surgery is often the first step in the treatment of colon cancer. This can be a challenging time, and a person may require additional support.

People can find support at the following organizations:

  • The Colorectal Cancer Alliance: People can contact their helpline at 877-422-2030. They also provide a support group chat.
  • Fight Colorectal Cancer: This is a resource library that includes podcasts, videos, and facts sheets.
  • American Cancer Society: The ACS has a support network for those with cancer, survivors of cancer, and their loved ones.

People may be able to find financial advice to help cover the cost of surgery at the following organizations:

Surgery to remove a portion of the colon is the main treatment option for colon cancer. There are different types of surgery depending on the extent of cancer a person has. Their recovery period will also vary.

A person’s doctor will inform them of any instructions they must follow before and after surgery. Attending follow-up appointments will help to ensure a person is healing effectively.