Colorectal cancer is the third most common form of cancer that American doctors diagnose, with around 130,000 new cases each year. While advances in treatment methods have helped cut the number of people who die from the disease, doctors still estimate that the disease kills around 50,000 people per year. As such, many people must contend with the prospect of palliative care. Learn what palliative care means to a colorectal cancer patient, and find out how you may need to support a loved one during this difficult period.
Colorectal cancer treatment by stage
Most colorectal cancer patients undergo surgery in the early stages of the disease. During the later stages of the disease, patients may need chemotherapy or radiation therapy to treat cancer that has grown or has returned following earlier surgical treatment.
If the disease persists, doctors may diagnose Stage IV cancer. At this point, surgery is unlikely to cure the disease, but the patient's medical team may recommend chemotherapy or radiation therapy to slow the cancer's progression and to control pain symptoms. This stage of palliative care can lead to a host of physical and psychological problems for the patients, which make the carer's role even more vital.
The purpose of palliative care
For many patients, any mention of palliative care can seem like a death sentence. Many people believe that this simply means the medical team is sending them away to die, so carers play a vital role in helping a patient cope with this transition in their care.
This stage of treatment aims to give patients the support they need to react quickly to changes in their health. The patient's medical team will work together to more effectively control pain and other symptoms, so the patient and his or her loved ones can enjoy a good quality of life. A doctor will recommend palliative care as early in the patient's treatment plan as necessary, as this will often achieve the best results.
How you can help
Many doctors recommend enhanced recovery programs for people with colorectal cancer. Even at an advanced stage in the disease, this approach can help the patient recover more quickly and can avoid certain side effects. As a carer, you can play an important role in this process. You may need to help the patient eat healthily and exercise as much as possible before the surgery. After the surgery, carers can sometimes take on some of the tasks that a nursing team would undertake in hospital, so the patient can go home sooner. Your loved one's medical team can give you more information about this approach.
As a carer, you will probably also need to help your loved one cope with many 'normal' physical tasks. For example, a lot of colorectal cancer patients must learn to cope with a stoma and an external bag after surgery. Your loved one will have regular visits from a stoma care nurse, but, as a carer, you will often also play an important role.
Even though they are wearing a stoma, some patients still find that they need to pass discharge from their back passage. Carers may need to help people use the toilet, and you may also need to help the patient wash and keep clean. Support from a carer can help cancer patients adjust to these routines more quickly and with less embarrassment.
Your loved one's medical team can help you find out more about the physical tasks your loved one may find increasingly difficult.
Crucially, carers often help people come to terms with their disease. At an early stage in the palliative care process, your loved one may feel better if he or she can make decisions about some of the choices that may come later. For example, you may need to find out what your loved one needs to do where you live to set up a legally binding living will.
50,000 Americans die from colorectal cancer every year, and many of these people rely on a full-time carer during their palliative care. If someone you love has colorectal cancer, talk to his or her medical care team about the role you can play. If you find that caring for your loved one is a little overwhelming, you can also hire a home caregiver, such as those at Devoted Guardians, and you can supplement any additional needs with your own service.