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Coping with advanced cancer

There is support available to help you cope with emotional, practical and physical issues when you have advanced bowel cancer.

Advanced bowel cancer is cancer that has spread from the back passage (rectum) or large intestines (colon) to other parts of the body, such as the liver. Sometimes cancer is advanced when it is first diagnosed. Or the cancer has come back and spread after treatment for the original cancer.

Treatment for advanced bowel cancer can keep it under control, relieve symptoms and give you a good quality of life.

In a few people with advanced bowel cancer, treatment can control the cancer for a long time. And for a small number of these people, a cure might be possible. This is usually only possible if your cancer has spread to just one other body part and the surgeon can completely remove this, as well as the cancer in your bowel. 

How you might feel

Finding out that you can’t be cured is distressing and can be a shock. It’s common to feel uncertain and anxious. It's normal to not be able to think about anything else.

Lots of information and support is available to you, your family and friends. It can help to find out more about your cancer and the treatments you might have. Many people find that knowing more about their situation can make it easier to cope.

    Talk to your doctor or nurse to understand:

    • what your diagnosis means
    • what is likely to happen
    • what treatment is available
    • how treatment can help you

    You may also feel embarrassed about having advanced cancer of the bowel or the rectum. Our bowels and going to the toilet are very private matters for many people. But your treatment team are used to talk about these things. And it's up to you who you decide to talk to. 

    Talking about advanced cancer

    Your friends and relatives might be able to support you and talk to you about your cancer. Sharing can help to increase trust and support between you and make it easier to plan ahead. But some families are scared of the emotions this could bring up. So they may not want to discuss it. They might worry that you won't be able to cope with your situation.

    It can strain relationships if your family or friends don't want to talk. You can help your family and friends by letting them know you would like to discuss what’s happening and how you feel.

    You might find it easier to talk to someone outside your own friends and family.

    Counselling might help you find ways of coping with your feelings and emotions. You can call the Cancer Research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040, from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday.


    Thinking about your priorities and planning what you want to do can help you to feel more in control. You might want to talk about how you want to spend your time and what is and isn’t important to you.

    Some of your future plans might no longer be realistic. But you might get round to doing something you always wanted to do but weren’t able to make time for.

    Many people think about getting their affairs in order if they haven’t already done so. For example, writing a Will, organising policies and documents, and making sure a trusted friend or family member is aware of where this information is kept.

    Cancer Research UK’s Legal Guidance Service

    Cancer Research UK is currently offering a Legal Guidance Service. We are working with a team of trusted solicitors to help with various legal tasks that you may want to consider, including Will writing, Living Wills and Power of Attorney. This is a pilot project at the moment. A face-to-face service is only running in Northampton, Norfolk and York. But there is a virtual service to the rest of England and Wales, where meetings are held by telephone or video call.

    Physical changes

    Advanced bowel cancer is likely to cause physical changes in your body. Community cancer nurses or symptom control nurses can help to support you at home.

    You might have had surgery and radiotherapy. This can cause scarring. And you might have loose stools or diarrhoea for some time.  

    It can be difficult if you have an opening onto the skin from the inside of your bowel (colostomy). You will need support to learn how to deal with it.

    You might also feel very tired and lacking in energy a lot of the time.

    Feeling as well as you can

    It is important that you feel as well as you possibly can. Tell your doctor or nurse about any symptoms you have so they can help to control them.

    Coping financially

    You might have extra expenses due to the cancer. Your specialist nurse or GP can help you get grants for heating costs, holidays or household expenses related to your illness.

    Ask to see a social worker. They can let you know which benefits or grants you can claim and help with the claiming process.  

    Who can help?

    You can get emotional and practical support through your hospital, local hospice and GP practice. You can also get help from charities and support groups.

    Towards the end of life

    It’s natural to want to find out what is likely to happen in the last few weeks or days of life.

    You might need to choose where you want to be looked after and who you want to care for you.

    You can call the Cancer Research UK nurses if you have questions or want to talk about coping with advanced cancer. Call free on 0808 800 4040, from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday.
    Last reviewed: 
    08 Oct 2018
    • Improving supportive and palliative care for adults with cancer

      National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), March 2004.

    • Managing advanced and metastatic colorectal cancer

      National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), August 2016