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Complications After Colon Cancer Surgery

author image Pat Stanfill Edens, PhD,
Pat Stanfill Edens writes on health, cancer and management, and has more than 125 publications to her credit. She is an internationally recognized health care management consultant, with more than 35 years of experience. She writes for reference books, texts, journals and the Web.
Complications After Colon Cancer Surgery
A group of doctors performing surgery on a patient Photo Credit: Keith Brofsky/Photodisc/Getty Images

Colon cancer forms in the tissues of the longest part of the large intestine, Almost all cases of colon cancer require surgery but with modern advances and early detection, less than 5% of patients will require a colostomy according to the American College of Colon and Rectal Surgeons (ACCRS). A colostomy reroutes the intestine through the skin of the abdomen. The extent of the surgery depends on the location and size of the tumor. Complications from colon surgery depend on the age and physical condition of the individual, the stage of the cancer and the type of surgery used. Chemotherapy and radiation may be part of the treatment.

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While the colon is cleaned with laxatives or enemas prior to surgery, infection can occur. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), infection may occur around the incision site on the abdomen or deep within the abdominal cavity or peritonitis. Healing becomes difficult with infection. Treatment may require long-term antibiotics or additional surgery may prove necessary.


Any time a major surgery occurs, bleeding may result. Removing part of the colon proves a very aggressive surgery and loss of blood during the procedure and after the surgery may occur. Blood transfusions may prove necessary. If the abdomen becomes distended or tight, it may indicate internal bleeding and another surgery may become necessary to locate the source.

Breakdown of the Anastomosis

The section of the colon that contains the cancer is usually removed and the two ends are sutured or sewed back together so that body wastes can move freely through the intestine. The place where the two ends meet is called an anastomosis. If this repaired part of the intestine does not heal correctly, the suture line breaks down and infection occurs. Another surgery, and perhaps a colostomy, may become necessary to repair the colon.

Bowel and Bladder Problems

Measuring output after surgery helps monitor for complications.
Measuring output after surgery helps monitor for complications.

Patients may have problems after surgery having a bowel movement or passing urine. Normal bowel and bladder functions usually return within a few days after surgery. Depending on the extent of the surgery, more serious complications may occur. The doctor and nurses will carefully monitor how much urine patients pass and how many bowel movements occur. If function does not return promptly, an intestinal obstruction or blockage may be present or damage to the bladder, kidneys and ureters, the tube between the kidneys and bladder that moves urine, may have occurred during surgery.

Injury to Nearby Organs

With colon cancer surgery, complications may occur with other body parts or organs because of the surgical procedure. Physicians move structures and organs around during the surgery to better visualize the site of the cancer. Perforation, which is an accidental hole or puncture through the wall of the organ during surgery, can occur. The spleen, bladder and ureters can become damaged if they remain close to the cancer site. Complications during surgery may require an unplanned colostomy.

Sexual Complications

Men who have had extensive surgery for colon cancer may experience problems with sexual function according to the American Cancer Society. Dry orgasms, a feeling of pleasure but with no sperm released, may occur. In rare cases, a man may not be able to have an erection. Women should not normally have problems with sexual function after colon surgery. The uterus may be removed during colon surgery so future pregnancy is not possible.

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