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Adapting to Life with an Ostomy

by Molly Pierce RN, ET, CWOCN

Knowledge image

There is no reason to curtail activities after colostomy. If there is something you want to do, then do it.

Survivors of colon cancer may have a portion of their colon or their rectum removed, resulting in an ostomy. How the ostomy is made determines the name of it.

If the remaining colon is brought out to the abdominal wall, the surgically created opening is called a colostomy. Food is eaten and digested as before surgery. The body expels the stool into a pouch that is emptied into the toilet. Survivors usually take two to three months to adjust to all the changes. While it is possible to have a colostomy for a reason other than cancer, the basic care is the same.

Bathing, Showering, and Swimming
You can bathe or shower with a colostomy. The colostomy will not be hurt by washing with soap and water. However, you should avoid moisturizing soap, as this may keep your pouch from sticking well. You may want to have another pouch ready when you are done with your bath.

Prior to swimming, you may want to empty the pouch. Some people have suggested wearing a bathing suit with a print or wearing a shirt over your bathing suit to disguise the appearance of the pouch. Excess heat may cause the adhesive to loosen, so it should be double-checked before getting into a hot tub.

After colostomy, you can usually eat the same foods that you enjoyed before surgery.

Author of Article photo

Molly Pierce

Choices in Ostomy Products
There are a variety of pouching options on the market today. The type and style of your pouch is a personal choice. Colors are primarily clear and tan. Pouch covers are also available. These come in a variety of colors. An ostomy nurse can review what options would best suit your individual needs. Ostomy pouches and accessories are available through mail order companies. Most of the manufacturers of pouches are willing to provide a sample to a colostomate, a person with a colostomy. Most insurance companies cover ostomy pouches under DME (durable medical equipment).

A Normal Diet
After colostomy, you can usually eat the same foods that you enjoyed before surgery. If a particular food has given you gas in the past, it will no doubt do the same after surgery. It may take six hours before the gas is expelled in the pouch, so it may not interfere with your activities. There are also pills you can take to relieve gas. Check with your healthcare provider or ostomy nurse for more information. After colostomy, you can become constipated or have diarrhea. The treatment is the same as before the colostomy.

Medications may likely be continued. However, some medications are absorbed in the colon. If the majority of your colon was removed, you may need to review the actions of your medications with your healthcare provider or pharmacist.

Traveling with an Ostomy
An ostomy support group meets monthly at the hospital where I work. An 82-year-old woman recently began attending. Her daughter lived in Maine and had a baby boy she had not seen. Fellow ostomates from the support group who had traveled themselves encouraged her to travel with extra pouches, just in case of emergency. She visited her grandson with no trouble and was grateful for the advice and encouragement.

There is no reason to curtail activities after colostomy. If there is something you want to do, or somewhere you’d like to go, then do it.

Caring for Your Ostomy
Some colostomies can be managed without using a drainable pouch. Some pouches are disposable. There is a possibility that you might need irrigation, which is an enema into the colostomy to regulate bowel movements. In this case, you may be able to wear a small cover over your stoma, the artificial opening in your abdomen.

Ostomy pouches are changed for a variety of reasons. People change their pouch or appliance anywhere from every three days to every two weeks. The goal is to change it prior to leakage and when it’s convenient for your lifestyle. You should also make sure that the skin around the stoma looks like normal skin. Your ostomy nurse can answer any questions you may have about your ostomy.

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Molly Pierce is a certified wound, ostomy, continence nurse at The Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.

For more information, contact the Wound, Ostomy, Continence Nurses Society at or (888) 224-WOCN or the United Ostomy Association of America at or (800) 826-0826.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 2009.