This is a question I get asked quite a lot.
What a great question. Thank you for caring enough to want to help.
Colon cancer can be painful. It often makes the patient weak either from blood loss or lack of nutrition. Finding foods that they can tolerate or that they fancy can be really helpful. But remember that their treatment or pre-op assessment may involve periods of starvation, or extremely restrictive food intake. Turning up at the hospital with a big bowl of fruit or a box of chocolates may be great for new mums, but is pretty cruel for colon cancer patients who may not be able to eat these things.
That said, they may crave certain foods such as ice lollies (when they’re permitted to have these). Talk to the patient’s doctors about diet and consider helping out the family by making tasty ice lollies, home-made soups, and eventually foods that will help build their strength again.
After surgery patients may not be able to tolerate vegetables or fruit or anything with fibre in it. Colon cancer patients have to avoid foods that make gas (eg beans and certain vegetables) as well as fizzy drinks for quite some time. They may need to build up their tolerance to vegetables over time, eating very small portions and starting with well cooked and easy to digest veg. Liquids – tasty teas or fruit cordials – may be all they’re permitted to begin with.
Please don’t try and ‘feed up’ the patient. They need to increase their food intake but forcing them to eat is not going to help. If they’re having trouble eating or getting back onto a normal diet and normal quantities then consult the colorectal nursing team. If you overfeed a patient you could end up doing more harm than good because their colon might not be ready for large quantities of food or certain types of food.
But don’t despair if you’re an amazing cook and just want to help. Your efforts will be appreciated elsewhere. Remember, immediate family are probably under a lot of strain. Ensuring they’re well fed with be immensely helpful. Prepare food that can be frozen and reheated, or invite them round for dinner to ensure they’re eating properly at this worrying time.
What can you take to hospital for colon cancer patients?
- A small bunch or arrangement of flowers (if the hospital permits). Something that smells as well as looks nice is always lovely to receive. Remember to bring a vase if you bring a bunch of flowers because the hospital may not provide them.
- Not everyone likes or appreciates balloons – they can get in the way of treatments – so ask first (this isn’t the maternity ward).
- How about a basket of magazines, crossword puzzles, or other kinds of puzzles?
- A new nightie or pyjamas. Wraps for round the shoulders are often appreciated by ladies. Socks and slippers are great for everyone.
- Women may appreciate toiletries such as a nice handcream or a really nice lip cream for chapped lips (hospitals are often overheated places and treatment can make patients more susceptible to chapped lips).
- Hospital is boring, so can you download some shows or films to their tablet?
- Check if there’s anything they forget and left at home? (There usually is!)
- Cards… I loved the cards I got from friends with funny messages in them and bits of news from home.
- In the UK, hospital coffee is often pretty yuk, so when I was finally permitted coffee I massively appreciated a friend who brought in a really nice, barista-made coffee. I just couldn’t stop smelling it!
- First ‘foods’ such as ice lollies. We often crave tastes even though we can’t eat much. Ask the colorectal nursing team or doctors as to what they would suggest.
- Yourself. I really appreciated the friend who just sat and held my hand while I fell asleep. Human contact and a pair of willing hands without any pressure to talk was an amazing present.
- Scarves and hats. Colorectal cancer can cause patients to lose hair – through anaemia or through chemo – which can be distressing. They may also struggle to keep warm because of anaemia. A scarf or a hat can tidy up hair and make them feel cosy and smarter. Consider knitting a hat for patients, or finding a lovely scarf and helping them explore the many ways to tie it! Knitting supplies also make a thoughtful gift (needles, wool and an easy pattern). See Knitting and cancer